Space Opera isn’t dead; instead, delightfully, it has grown up. Empire of Dust, the debut novel from Jacey Bedford, published by DAW, is a fine example of a novel which has its roots in the sub-genre, but grows beyond it.
Cara Carlini is a woman with a past, and she’s running away from it as fast as she can. She’ll take whatever help she can get, though always with her eyes open. She’s also a psi-tech, one of the significant minority in Bedford’s universe whose innate psionic talents have been enhanced with technology to make them indispensable to the corporate and criminal organisations who call the shots. Cara throws her lot in with Ben Benjamin because he’s in the right place at the right time, but this turns out to be a life-changing decision for them both.
The skill of this book lies in Bedford’s ability to seamlessly combine intrigue-heavy, multi-viewpoint plotting with human stories featuring characters you care about – a rare feat in this genre. The main ‘love’ triangle is handled particularly well. Note the quotation marks – this is anything but a standard romance, because we’re dealing with people who can alter memories and plant compulsions.
As well as the central relationships, and the questions they raise about free will, trust and loyalty, the book deals with themes of prejudice, and idealism vs pragmatism. Cara and Ben find themselves thrust into the close company of the anti-psi-tech Ecolibrians whose utopian dreams are set to come into conflict with the market forces in this highly capitalist future. Bedford is carefully non-judgemental in her handling of moral issues – even her antagonists are given their say – and the book has a pleasing weight and balance as a result.
Bedford’s punchy, readable style propels the reader easily through the complexities of the well-paced plot, and her world-building, whilst utilising some tropes, also displays interesting and original touches which bode well for future novels.
The book is not without flaws – the opening is somewhat loaded with backstory, and there are a couple of coincidences driving parts of the plot – but these are small and forgivable, especially bearing in mind this is a first novel. It’ll be interesting to see where the story goes next.