Sci-fi Novel Review: Red Darkling by L.A. Guettler

My judging team for the third annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC3) has scouted our entire allotment and selected seven books to be passed around the team for full evaluations by our entire complement of judges. As I read two of the seven in the scouting phase, that will mean five new reads for me personally, all books that either got thumbs up from multiple scouts or had one of my teammates really go out on a limb in favor of it. And next on my list was one of the books with recommendations from both of its initial readers: Red Darkling by L.A. Guettler. 

Red Darkling takes its name from the main character, Mildred “Red” Darkling, a small-time smuggler trying to keep her ship functional and herself supplied with booze and coffee. Narrow escapes from various perils are nothing new, but when she begins to notice a mysterious benefactor suspiciously involved in a handful of scrapes, she starts asking questions. And asking questions may put her on the path to an adventure beyond any she’s seen before. 

While Red Darkling is a concise and punchy title, this is a book where an “Adventures of…” title would’ve helped set the expectations and prevent some unnecessary disorientation in the early stages. For about four chapters, it looks like a YA novel (note: it is not a YA novel). Even beyond that, it has the episodic structure of a TV series that spends half a season on a “crisis of the week” format before slowly introducing a central conflict that will occupy the back half. There are undoubtedly hints as to the larger plot, but fans of the story are going to have to enjoy watching Red stumble about the galaxy drinking and getting herself into and back out of trouble. 

And the individual episodes are pretty fun. As long as you’re willing to accept that Red will consistently make terrible life choices, Red Darkling delivers a series of bite-sized adventures that are sometimes amusing, sometimes exciting, and always entertaining. I would, however, have liked to see a little more cohesion between the episodes. There are elements introduced early that any genre-savvy reader will expect to see again, only to go unmentioned for three-quarters of the book, much of which is spent watching Red get herself into unrelated scrapes. Even if the scrapes are entertaining, it feels at times like a fix-up novel that wasn’t completely fixed up, lacking those little hints that remind the reader the main story hasn’t been forgotten and keep the tension steady. Their lack doesn’t make for a boring read, but it does make for a slightly disjointed one. 

Additionally, in holding the major revelations for the end, the book forces side characters to be so cryptic as to strain credulity. The genre-savvy reader has all the tools to see certain connections, and the narrative’s attempts to hide these connections from the lead makes the seams a little more obvious. 

Reader experience with Red Darkling will turn both on how much they enjoy the endearing screw-up character archetype and on whether they can relax and enjoy the story’s episodic nature without worrying too much about the main plot. Because the individual episodes are engagingly written and generally pretty fun, but the overarching story develops slowly, with some of the foreshadowing coming off clumsily. Overall, it makes for a solid popcorn sci-fi. And to be honest, I don’t think it was trying to be anything else.

Recommended if you like: popcorn space opera, screw-up leads.

Can I use it for BingoIt’s hard mode for Self-Published. It also Features Robots.

Overall rating: 12 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.

SPSFC score: 6/10 for my personal score. The official team score will be determined in concert with my teammates.

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