This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Deep Sky will be released on July 18, 2023.
We’ve reached the end of Sky Week, which closes with the second consecutive space thriller review. Now I’m not usually one for space thrillers, but I do have a soft spot for “find the saboteur before she kills us all” stories, and the author of one of my favorites (The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal) had such high praise for The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei that I figured I’d give it a try.
The Deep Sky follows a crew of 80 who have trained since adolescence for a one-way mission to escape the environmental collapse on Earth and attempt to establish a functioning colony on Planet X. After ten years asleep, the crew is awoken to prepare for arrival and be about the business of having babies—the ship carries a sperm bank and all 80 crewmembers are expected to carry a child. But when an explosion kills three of their compatriots and knocks the ship off course, they have little time to identify the saboteur and right their path before the mission is doomed to failure.
The story is told from the perspective of Asuka—a Japanese-American chosen at the last minute for the mission after being initially tabbed an alternate—and takes place mostly after the explosion, with interspersed flashbacks showing the highly competitive training program. And while the training sections feature plenty of genre-standard backbiting in a ruthless competition for limited spaces on the mission, the present-day story is well-paced and exciting. The stakes are high from the get-go, and it’s written in a way that keeps the tension high and the pages turning.
Unfortunately, it also requires more suspension of disbelief than I was able to manage. Most of the negative reviews that I’ve seen have struggled to get past the pregnancy requirement, but I was able to mostly accept that and move on. As the father of three young children, I’m skeptical that colonizing a new planet with kids underfoot is especially easier than waiting until the basic infrastructure is established to have children in the first place, but apart from the female-dominated crew and several characters trying to manage crises in their third trimesters, it never felt essential to the plot.
Personally, I had a much more difficult time swallowing the ubiquitous augmented reality that allowed each crew member to see the bowels of the ship transformed into a setting of their desires—a forest, a library, a fantasy world, etc. There’s a passing reference to one officer mandating their team sync augments, but despite repeated glitches and an implication that augmented reality contributed heavily to at least one fatality, the crew goes most of the book without questioning whether tuning their eyes to a virtual construct in place of their physical surroundings may at all inhibit their investigation. It struck me as such an obvious impediment that seeing it ignored for so long constantly pulled me out of the story.
That wasn’t the only area in which I struggled to suspend disbelief—a few descriptions of outer space surroundings and some details of plans to change course had me raising eyebrows—but it was the most pernicious, keeping me from fully immersing in the first three-quarters of the story. If I hadn’t promised an honest review, I might’ve DNF’d. But by pushing on, I was treated to a thrilling finish that had me tearing through the last chapters trying to figure out what happened. I still wasn’t convinced about all the details, but the plot moved so quickly and the tension stayed so high that I was able to relax and enjoy the ride. And it was quite a ride.
I would be remiss in finishing the review without mentioning a couple subplots that served as thematic buttresses to the main thriller arc. The lead’s feeling of dislocation as a biracial woman experiencing discrimination in America— but without the linguistic ability to immerse in Japanese culture—was a constant companion that made her more than the standard everywoman. Lacking the staggering subject-matter expertise of her colleagues, albeit smart enough to solve problems on her own, she could’ve easily been nothing more than a reader insert with an admittedly endearing fascination with birds. But her inability to immerse in either culture gave her an element of character depth beyond simply being a generic lead trying to figure out which friend had betrayed them.
Additionally, the book features several terrorist groups—notably a white supremecist organization and an environmentalist group deeply skeptical of the space program—serving both as potential villains and as direct antagonists in the flashback sections. These felt true to life in a way that sometimes resonated and other times felt a little bit too on-the-nose. For instance, it’s hard to imagine the fear that rich donors are using the space program as an excuse to control people with secret nanochips being written any time other than the early 2020s. It’s hard to call it unrealistic, but there were times where it was pointed enough to break immersion. But even though this subplot wasn’t perfect, it did contribute some interpersonal conflict that improved the story on the whole.
Overall, The Deep Sky is a fast-paced space thriller with an intriguing mystery at its core and a writing style that ratchets up the tension and expertly keeps it high for the duration. Unfortunately, there were a few elements of the setup that seemed implausible, and one in particular struck me as so implausible that I had trouble immersing for most of the book. The ending was good enough to leave things on a high note, but getting there requires either some perseverance or more suspension of disbelief than I had to hand.
Recommended if you like: space thrillers (with perhaps implausible setups)
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for POC Author and Published in 2023. It also Features Robots and a Queernorm Setting. There are aspects that feel Young Adult (especially in the flashbacks), but the main cast are all in their early 20s, and as far as I can tell, it’s being marketed as adult sci-fi.
Overall rating: 12 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.