Sci-fi Novel Review: Kenai by Dave Dobson

My judging team in the third annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC3) has turned in our two semifinalists, and in return, we’ve received two semifinalists each from a pair of other teams. Our task over the months of February and March is to read these four new semifinalists, and together with the other two teams, select two finalists from our set of six. The semifinal round began in the middle of my scramble to read 2023-published work before award nominations were due, so it was an easy decision to start on the one novel published in 2023: Kenai by Dave Dobson. 

Something I see more often in self-published work than in traditionally published novels is the bait-and-switch, where a story opens feeling like one sort of tale, only to morph into something entirely different as it progresses. And while that may sound like a complaint, it isn’t always—sometimes a major shift can breathe new life into a familiar story, especially if it’s well-foreshadowed. And in Kenai, the foreshadowing isn’t a problem. It opens as a military sci-fi, with a former soldier working security for an isolated archeological excavation on an out-of-the-way planet. Interspersed among the host of anomalies that prime the reader to expect a major conflict are scenes from the lead’s backstory, one that saw her put through the wringer for daring to act honorably when her mercenary company was given appalling orders. Standard mil-SF fare, though significantly more gripping than typical. But when the anomalies start to coalesce into the inevitable conflict, the story shifts from a military sci-fi into something of a first contact tale, with the backstory segments winding down as the novel put all its energy into explicating the new development. 

Given that I am not at all a military sci-fi fan, the big surprise here is that the first third was my favorite part. I was hooked almost immediately, with the strong character voice, a mountain of pathos from the backstory, and an intriguing mystery to drive the novel forward. It was as bingeable as anything I’ve read in this competition, and I was invested pretty much from the word go. 

But as the mysteries developed into something more concrete, the story slowed way down to allow the lead to catch up to exactly what was going on, while simultaneously learning about a previously unknown alien species that knows a suspicious amount about humanity. The writing quality in this chapters stays strong, but the propulsive pacing of the first third–where every chapter brought a new danger, mystery, or character revelation, went away–replaced by a first contact scenario that the reader understands long before the main character does. And while I’m a first contact aficionado, Kenai manages to skip right past some of the interesting communication difficulties that make the concept so interesting to me. There was plenty of plot justification for the skip, but it led to a focus on story elements that I didn’t leave me quite as engaged as I usually am in first contact tales–or as I had been in the first third of the novel! 

As the story goes on, the feeling of skipping past some of the potentially interesting segments continues. The relationship between the lead and the alien offers enough to keep the reader invested, and there’s plenty to sort through in the setup, but the main story heads fairly directly toward the conclusion, not really engaging with a host of subplots that felt like they had potential. The backstory segments were only that, and a significant AI character was introduced, only to stay mostly on the sidelines. The main story had enough twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention, so the failure to meaningfully explore potential subplots didn’t make for a bad story, just one that felt like it didn’t quite hit its full potential. 

On the whole, the bingeable prose and engaging main character made for a fun read, and the author managed the difficult trick of drawing me into a subgenre that usually doesn’t much interest me. The writing chops are on full display in the first third and have me curious to read more of Dobson’s work. But as the story progressed, it zeroes in a bit too much on the main plot and leaves potentially interesting subplots to the side, leaving me with mixed feelings upon completion. 

Recommended if you like: sci-fi adventures with complicated plot shenanigans. 

Can I use it for Bingoit’s hard mode for Self-Published and is also Published in 2023. 

Overall rating: 14 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads. 

SPSFC score: 7/10 for my personal score. The team score will be determined in concert with my teammates.

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