My final read in the finals of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC) had perhaps the best combination of consistent praise (90% of individual ratings coming in at 7.5/10 or higher) and high ceiling (20% of individual ratings coming in at 9/10) in the first two rounds. The blurb pitching an action-heavy space opera didn’t necessarily grab me, but the weight of those previous scores made it hard not to be a bit excited about Patrice Fitzgerald and Jack Lyster’s series-opening Captain Wu.
Captain Wu stars the titular captain of a ragtag bunch of smugglers trying to scrape out an existence on the margins of an interplanetary Commonwealth. But what seems like an ordinary job delivers them more than their share of unwanted attention, and Wu and her crew are thrown into a quest to determine just what was so special about that delivery—before it gets them all killed.
If that description brings Firefly to your mind, getting into the book itself is not like to change that impression. The parallels in the setting are obvious, and the characters have just the right combination of snark and anti-government sentiment to fit right in with the crew of Serenity. But, though there might be enough similarities to get the nostalgia pumping and overcome my dislike of action-heavy plots, Captain Wu is not just Firefly with the serial numbers filed off. The inspiration from other popular franchises may be heavy when it comes to setting—and is lampshaded at least once, in the case of Dune—but the Starship Nameless series has its own characters with their personalities, goals, and struggles. And yes, “getting paid” and “not getting killed” are high on the list of goals. And the list of struggles.
And so we’re led on a merry and deadly chase, with plenty of nice action pieces and character interactions along the way. The crew of the Starship Nameless must not only evade enemies whose identities and motivations are opaque to them, they must learn enough about their pursuers to find out how to end the chase for good. And hopefully get paid along the way.
And this leads to the second way in which Captain Wu reminds me of a TV series: the first book is a teaser. Even a long-running series will generally offer some sort of satisfying climax to make the first book feel worth the effort, but Captain Wu feels more like a TV pilot. It delivers enough plot progress to serve as the end of an episode (at least before the cliffhanger ending that amplifies the sequel hook), but it hardly makes a dent in the main plot. By the end of book one, we know a little bit more about who is pursuing the heroes, but still next-to-nothing about why. And delivering some fun action scenes while introducing the cast and gesturing at shadowy danger would make a totally satisfying first episode of a TV series. But in a novel, I expect some payoff for the investment in the book, not just a pitch for the series (and yes, I know that sometimes an especially long book will split at the midway climax—it happens, and I understand it. But Captain Wu doesn’t feel quite like that sort of case).
This makes it hard to put a numerical score on the book. If I’m grading against my expectations for novels, the score is Incomplete. Because I had fun with it, but then it stopped. On the other hand, it is a very short novel (listed under 300 pages, and it honestly reads faster than that), and if this is just the first episode of a serial, then it seems like a pretty successful one! But Goodreads and SPSFC both demand scores, and I went somewhere in the middle, letting the fun factor bring it into the four-star range but the feeling of incompleteness keep it at the low end of that range.
Recommended if you like: fun, fast-paced space operas with ragtag crews trying to stay ahead of the law (and whoever else is after them).
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Self-Published and Set in Space (and will be for Award Finalist, if it doesn’t win). It’s also Written by Multiple Authors, has a Name in the Title, includes Family Matters, and its title has No Ifs Ands Or Buts.
Overall rating: 14 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC score: 7/10 for my personal score. We will await results from the other judges before announcing an official team score.