The Blurb On The Back:
The race for immortality is on.
When linguist and smuggler Sean Wren is blackmailed into a job to get some data off an ancient ship, he’s not expecting it to be the Philosopher’s Stone: a literal recipe for immortality.
Unfortunately, he’s not the only one looking. The undying Ministers, mysterious aliens that have ruled over humanity for thousands of years, want the data too. So does the Republic, the last free human government.
To add to the fun, the map to the treasure is in a long-lost language, the ship’s filled with dangerous traps and genetically-engineered monsters, and the nearby star’s going supernova in a few days.
Easy job, right?
THE IMMORTALITY THIEF by Taran Hunt was released in the United States on 11th October 2022 and in the United Kingdom on 13th October 2022. Thanks to Rebellion Publishing for the review copy of this book.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s the far future.
Humanity has colonised the stars but ihe galaxy is divided between two Sister Systems. Maria Nova is under the control of Ministers (lethal humanoid aliens who emerged out of nowhere over a thousand years ago and subjugated humanity under their control). Terra Nova is under the control of the Republic (where human colonies retain control and run under an ostensible democracy). As the two sides fight for control and influence, it is the independent colonised planets that suffer.
Sean Wren knows this all too well. He’s a survivor from the city of Itaka on the planet Kystrom, an independent colony that the Republic abandoned, leading to the Ministers making an example of Itaka to force the planet’s surrender. Sean lost his parents and younger sister, Brigid, but managed to escape with fellow-survivor Benny on a ship that had belonged to Benny’s uncle. Since then they’ve made a living staying under the Republic’s radar, smuggling goods and messages (made possible by Sean’s gift for languages).
When a job goes wrong, Sean and Benny find themselves under arrest by the Republic and facing the choice of a lengthy prison sentence or “voluntary” military service against the Ministers (basically a death sentence). Fortunately, a woman called Quint is willing to offer them a third choice on behalf of an influential but unnamed Republican Senator. They’ve picked up a signal from an abandoned spaceship in orbit around a star that’s about to go supernova. The spaceship is over a thousand years old and pre-dates the Ministers. Quint and the Senator believe it was involved in the Philosopher’s Stone experiments – experiments aimed at creating the secret to immortality so that mankind could spread out among the stars without relying on generational ships. They want Sean, Benny and a fellow convict called Leah to accompany Quint to the spaceship, recover the data from the experiments before the star goes nova in 11 days, and get the data back to the Republic. Sean knows the job isn’t as simple as that, but he’s tempted. The message is in Ameng – an ancient language that virtually no one knows how to translate – but Sean knows a few words and realises that if he goes on the mission, he could learn more. So when Quint and the Senator make the offer literally un-refusable, he decides to make the best of it.
But from the moment Sean, Benny, Leah and Quint dock their ship The Viper to the ancient spaceship, they realise that there’s a lot they haven’t been told. For starters, there’s already a human female soldier on the ship but that’s nothing compared to the fact that a group of Ministers have also docked and everyone has to contend with the results of the Philosopher’s Stone experiments – weird and deadly creatures that have evolved and bred over generations and which are very keen to try some fresh meat …
Taran Hunt’s debut SF novel mixes TOMB RAIDER with ALIENS to action-packed effect. Sean is an interesting main character who prefers communication to violence while the dynamic between him, Indigo (a Minister) and Tamara (a Republican soldier) held my interest and the creatures are genuinely creepy. Some of the flashbacks slow the pace and I wanted more depth to the politics and history but the cliffhanger ending promises an interesting sequel.
I found Sean to be an interesting main character. The fact that he’s interested in languages and communication is an interesting dimension (especially as he is blind to Benny’s non-verbal signals) and also explains his aversion to violence and why he’s keen and able to build up an alliance with Tamara and Indigo. Hunt uses narrative flashbacks to help flesh out both Sean’s backstory and explain the history and politics of the universe she’s created. She has clearly thought through the world building but I did find the rivalry between the Ministers and Republic to be a bit billy basics and wanted to understand both more about how the Ministers run their system and how that works and how the Republic works in practice (although this is something that could come out in the sequel). I did enjoy the way Hunt shows the personal impact that the conflict between the Republic and Ministers has had on Sean and the bits of history he shares about humanity worked for me and held my interest.
Hunt uses Indigo to help flesh out the Minister side of things, especially the way they communicate with each other and some of their history. Although one of the twists involving him is telegraphed too heavily and I wanted to know what the other Ministers thought about him and to what extent he was “normal” or an anomaly, Hunt does well at establishing his relationship with Sean and the way the book ends throws up a lot of potential for how he could develop. By contrast, I was a bit disappointed in Tamara as she doesn’t give much about the Republic’s military or politics and seems to be there more to provide plot backstory for the expedition and why Sean and his compatriots were brought in. I did think there was a missed opportunity for Hunt to use both Tamara and Quint to flesh out the Republic and give it depth but again, there is scope to do this in the sequel.
There is plenty of action as the characters work their way through the ship to find the data they need with the threat of the nearby star going supernova adding a need for urgency. For the most part Hunt does a good job of combining the journey through the station with Sean’s backstory (told through flashbacks) and explanation for the experiments being carried out. However I wasn’t convinced that all of the flashbacks were needed and in a couple of places they did slow the pace (as did a series of scenes towards the end of Sean’s time on the station, which just seemed a bit overdone). That said, I did find the creatures within the station to be genuinely creepy, my favourite being the children with too many teeth in their mouth – Hunt uses them really well to establish both a sense of menace but also the horror that comes from having to kill them. Also genuinely creepy are the nano bots controlled by the station’s AI and I genuinely enjoyed the way Hunt uses them within the story both as a source of horror but also for exposition.
I was disappointed in how Hunt uses Quint and Benny. It is understandable given the way the plot develops but it did feel like a wasted opportunity. Equally wasted for me was the leader of the Ministers, who clearly has history with Indigo but that isn’t gone into in any depth. I also felt that the resolution to the story (and in particular the dilemma of what to do with the data) was a bit pat although it did work within the context of character and plot. Equally, the cliffhanger at the end of the book was something else that was telegraphed too early and too heavily, but it is an interesting development and I would definitely want to check out the sequel to see where it goes.
My criticisms aside, this is a strong debut that held my attention from beginning to end and not only would I be keen to read the sequel, but I would also be interesting to see what else she writes.