Humans have been traveling the stars for hundreds of years, and use alien technology in order to do it. The alien ship they originally found all those years ago was empty of aliens, but the ship was able to travel faster than light, so humans reverse-engineered the technology. They call the energy the ships use to travel through space “lines,” but there’s a catch: very few humans can actually repair ship lines.
LINESMAN, by the Australian sister-duo S.K. Dunstall, is the first of a new series about main character Ean Lambert, who is trained as a linesman, but whose strange methods make him a second-class citizen among the linesmen. Traditionally trained linesmen use their minds and will to do the repair work, but Ean can hear the lines and sings to them–much to the derision of his peers.
As the book opens, Ean’s work contract is being sold to Lady Michelle Lyan, a princess of the Alliance, and political manueverer extraordinaire. All the other level ten linesmen (the highest level a linesman can be designated) are at the Confluence, a space anomaly that has something to do with lines but no one seems able to figure out what. But Ean’s persona non grata status has kept him away from the Confluence, working on the high level lines that no one else can be bothered to fix; all ten lines are vital for a functioning starship, but only a level ten can repair a number ten line. Michelle needs Ean to help solve the problem of a derelict alien ship whose defense system is still online and has already obliterated investigating Alliance ships. If this ship is like the original alien ship used to reverse-engineer lines, then only a level ten linesman will be able to figure out how to stop its defense systems. At least they hope Ean can before other political entities succeed in taking it out from under the Alliance’s nose.
But everything goes wrong. Gloriously so. I love how Dunstall takes the story in directions that make things hard on our heroes, with results that accentuate Ean’s unusual approach to lines. Ean is a character easy to like with how he loves his work, and while he’s sensitive to the derision of his fellow linesmen, also understands that what he does works. LINESMAN was a seriously refreshingly fun book to read.
Remember my review for THE SILVER SHIPS? (See it here if you need a reminder.) The premise was cool but the execution was disappointing? LINESMAN delivers in every way where THE SILVER SHIPS failed. Their stories are not dissimilar: alien ships, new technology and the inherent politics, an unconventional hero, and sentient technology. In other ways it’s like Anne McCaffery’s CRYSTAL SINGER series because of how they use technology (crystals vs lines) to run ships, which must be sung to. Sure Dunstall borrows themes and ideas, but weaves the stories and characters into a world all their own.
Was it a perfect book? The short answer is no, but that doesn’t make it a bad book. The prose is on the terse side: some chapters and scenes end abruptly while other scenes skimp on character movement or explanations. The pacing is quick-footed, but after an exciting 2/3 mark, the story slows way down as a result of politics and people placing before the final climax (not as exciting as the 2/3 mark, strangely) and resolution; this set-up, while unavoidable, made the last half of the story structure a little clunky. The cast, while interesting, was unwieldy by the end and I got overwhelmed. The secondary characters are well drawn, but the “villains” are more one-note; also Ean can be whiny (how many times does a guy have to drop to his knees or need a shower?). The politics were too convoluted for me–I like it simple, so I admit I sometimes tuned it out when I got lost–but I could see how they affected the plot and characters. Ultimately, though, it was easy to look past these problems.
While I can’t speak for the realism of the technology, I really enjoyed how Dunstall presents the information of the lines, through Ean and through the other PoV character Jordan (who is a traditionally trained linesman). As the story progresses, understanding the lines and what they can do becomes integral to the story. Sometimes it seems a little like magic with what Ean can do, but Dunstall does explain, and fortunately it takes the story to exciting places. If this is the start of S.K. Dunstall’s career, I can’t wait to see if, through experience, how future installments evolve into something really great.
- Recommended Age: 14+ (more for comprehension than content)
- Language: None
- Violence: A few scenes with fighting and death, but quite unbloody
- Sex: None