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Book Impressions: Caretaker, by Josi Russell

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 25, 2016

CaretakerCaretaker, by Josi Russell, is an unusual science fiction book. The story is about Ethan Bryant, a man designated to the sole conscious person – the “caretaker” on a very lonely 50+ year colony ship. He was the last of the passengers to be put into hibernation stasis, but before that could happen, the actual caretaker – the human in charge of maintaining the ship in case of problems during the voyage – died quite suddenly and unexpectedly. The computer then designated him the replacement, even though he has no idea what he is doing. So with his pregnant wife already in stasis, he’s forced to live his entire life patrolling the corridors of a ship, making sure the other 3999 passengers make it to their destination in safety, at which time he’ll be a very old man.

Then one day, five years into his lonely vigil, one of the stasis pods activates, and Kaia emerges – a beautiful engineer who had been secretly married to the original caretaker.

The first half of the book is fairly slow paced development of the two characters and an emerging mystery on the ship. Ethan is a specialist in a “useless” field – an expert in a long-dead alien language. Kaia is a brilliant engineer who had designed parts of the class of colony ships like the one in which they are traveling. It’s clear that Ethan desperately needs the companionship, but as their relationship continues it threatens his intention to remain faithful to his wife.

And then there are some anomalous readings on the ship, and things that don’t make sense… especially when they conflict with Kaia’s understanding of how things should be laid out. And was the original caretaker’s sudden death natural, or was it murder? And what is Kaia actually up to?

As they have a 50 year voyage ahead of them, they don’t feel particularly pressured to solve everything all at once, which further slows down the pace of the first half of the book.  It feels leisurely, and while very interesting and character-building, it’s not really action-driven or plot-driven. And there are times where the science is kinda questionable. I guess Star Wars and Star Trek got it a lot worse, but still…

Anyway, the mystery heats up, but as soon as our two heroes figure out what’s really going on… well, all hell breaks loose. And suddenly our slower-paced sci-fi drama / mystery turns into a hell-bent-for-leather full-on epic pulp SF. I don’t want to spoil anything any more than I have (although that much is strongly suggested on the back cover). This was good ol’ action-adventure SF that left me wondering how they were possibly going to get out of the current fix. It’s good ol’ fashioned planetary romance and a lot of fun, with the addition of more detailed characters developed in the earlier stage of the story.

Now… the only big issue here is that the change of pace is so jarring that it’s almost like two different books. Same characters, same story, but even with the ramp-up in the mystery in the first half, it’s still a little jarring. That may be a major irritant for some readers, as may the bit of hand-waviness on the science side.  But while a little bit rough in those respects, I thought it was a good freshman novel from Russell, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Guardians, released earlier this year.

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