Sci-fi Novel Review: Night Music by Tobias Cabral

The first round of the second annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC2) has ended, and my team has hand-picked three semifinalists to send to two other teams of fellow judges. In return, we have received six semifinalists from two other judging teams, which we will read before the end of April. One that piqued particular interest—on the strength of its first round reviews—was Night Music by Tobias Cabral. 

Night Music is a short novel, just over the novella boundary, featuring a mission to Mars to diagnose the problem that left a Martian research base unable to communicate—and to mount a rescue if needed. The majority of the story is told from the perspective of one of the pilots, but a fair amount of the limited page time is spent fleshing out other members of the small mission and turning this into a genuine ensemble cast. 

In most books, what the narrative chooses to focus on gives the reader a sense of what kind of story to expect. A space opera or war story may spend a lot of time on banter among the crew, a figure-it-out sci-fi will focus on technical details, and an exploration story will feature descriptions of the ineffable and alien. But Night Music is hard to pin down, because it foregrounds everything. There’s the banter of a space opera, the technical detail of a fix-it, and the uncanny vistas of an exploration. If there’s anything that stays in the background, it’s the geopolitical context—the story is very clear on the mission and its members, but how it affects things back home doesn’t get much mention until the end. 

I imagine this unusual stylistic choice will work very well for a small subset of readers who love seeing the hard sci-fi details, even in stories where they would usually be left in the background. But even with a consistently clear prose style, I found it created some difficulty in focusing on what were ultimately the key elements, with alien landscapes receding into the technical noise and the ensemble cast failing to fully distinguish themselves in limited page time. 

I did enjoy the unique style more when it came to the plot, as it truly kept me guessing about what kind of story I was reading. Because the narrative could have gone any number of ways, it made it hard to predict the ending—not because the author obfuscated information that was available to the characters, but because he mixed and matched tropes so well that I wasn’t sure which would dominate. The finale the story ultimately produced may have felt like an anticlimax in a certain sort of book but felt just right for Night Music

Overall, Night Music is a well-written short novel that combines tropes in interesting ways to keep the reader guessing. However, I did feel it tried to emphasize too much in its relatively limited page time, making it harder to fully appreciate some of the standout elements. For me, the result is a mixed bag, but there’s enough to make this worth looking into for hard sci-fi aficionados. 

Recommended if you like: hard sci-fi, mixing tropes. 

Can I use it for BingoIt’s hard mode for Self-Published.

Overall rating: 13 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads. 

SPSFC score: 6.5/10 for my personal score. The official team score will be determined in concert with my teammates.

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