Architects of Memory
(The Memory War Book I)
By Karen Osborne
Tor Books — September 2020
ISBN: 9781250215475 — Paperback — 336 pp.
Indentured salvage pilot Ashlan Jackson has a new work family, and hopes of gaining citizenship now seem attainable. Saved from a mining colony owned by the Wellspring Celestium Holdings corporation where she had little chance of ever getting free from debt, Ash has been rescued by the captain of the Auroran Coporation salvage ship Twenty-Five. Taken on as pilot, Ash has a new chance at life, and the possibility of earning credits to rise from indenture. Despite being physically freed from the colony mines, Ash secretly lives with a terminal illness, one born from contact with the Celestium fuel that powers humanity’s space-flight engines. Citizenship will not only provide Ash freedom, but will give her access to the cure. But, her past on the Wellspring mining colony still haunt her, especially the memories of her dead fiancé Christopher, who perished before he and Ash could both escape.
Though her life remains full of hard indentured work, Ash sees the small steps forward, and has become relatively comfortable around her shipmates, who all trust one another with their lives amid the harshness of empty space and alien threats. Surprising herself, the closest relationship Ash has built is with the captain of the Twenty-Five, Kate Keller. Their mutual attraction and budding romance is something they each try to control and keep secret from the others, to ensure the corporate functioning of the ship remains professional, and their futures’ safe.
The great wrench in their possible futures (but also the tremendous opportunity before the crew of the Twenty-Five) comes from war with the Vai, the first and only aliens met by star-faring humanity. Conflict with the Vai has existed since first contact, and thus far humanity has lost again and again: a devastating destruction of ships, colonies, and millions of lives. Until, everything changes above the colony Tribulation, where the Vai engaged several human corporate ships in battle. Something has happened to cause the Vai to retreat beyond the interstellar boundary known as the White Line. A terrible weapon has been left behind that corporations are now after, ostensibly to help save humanity, but also to get that competitive edge. The crew of the Twenty-Five is first on the scene to scavenge Vai technology and try to find this awesome weapon that can lead to salvation or annihilation. There, at Tribulation, they try and unravel the mystery of what occurred to pause the alien threat. Ash finds answers with both personal repercussions and larger meaning for memory and the nature of life.
Osborne begins Architects of Memory like a blast of lively brass at the start of a Romantic symphony, dropping readers right into the action of this salvage scene and slowly introducing the world, plot background, and characters through Ash’s point-of-view. Along with Captain Keller, we soon meet fiery and loyal war veteran Natalie Chan and Leonard Downey, the engineer who has a thing for Natalie and uses his and irreverent humor as “Chief Executive of Snark” to help calm the others. Also on the Twenty-Five are: Dr. Reva Sharma, an Auroran citizen and physician whose high birthright status and accomplishments sharply contrast with her assignment to the grunt-work of the lowly Twenty-Five‘s crew; the ambitious Executive Officer Alison Ramsay, whose taciturn efficiency compliments Captain Keller’s gentler leadership.
Just as one is getting to know these characters and their histories, Osborne presents more revelations, deepening mysteries, and new quagmires for her protagonist Ash or supporting cast. The pages of Architects of Memory flow with a well-paced intensity balancing action with twisty plots, character betrayals, and moments of quiet resilience when all seems lost or over. The novel embodies space opera as if part of some epic saga, yet manages to do this within a constrained setting of time (days) and location. The reader witnesses struggles, heroism, and failures among this salvage crew, but it feels like a personal story of something much grander in scope. In other words, this is a novel about a handful of specific people, but Osborne makes that individual scale also symbolic for human-wide conflicts of corporate class structure and alien contact.
These humanity-scale themes are nothing new to SF, of course, but Osborne makes them fresh and entertaining at the personal level of character interaction. And, on the front of alien first contact, she writes some fascinating concepts regarding the nature of the Vai. I would write and say more, but I definitely want to avoid spoilers on this. With governments failing to maintain the high cost of space travel/colonization due to fewer immediate benefits (the pandemic has again shown how awful we are at preparing for longterm betterment), private companies have taken on the risks of space exploration to invest in the far-future rewards that will come. Two hundred years from now in the time of Architects of Memory, this practice has led to the indenture and cut-throat (literally perhaps) corporate competition that forms the fabric of human society and injustice. While Osborne doesn’t necessarily take this theme significantly astray from what other space opera SF has done, it seems as if it plays an even larger part in the sequel novel.
I adored the characters of Ash and Natalie, whose interactions and friendship/conflict form the bulk of the novel’s momentum. Osborne puts these two women not just through traumatic pasts, but continued challenges that eat away at the core of their identities and dreams. Yet, they each stay as honestly true to themselves and their ideals as one could ever expect, and fight against tremendous odds for the slim chance of continued survival or eventual victory. The so-called Golden Age of SF soap opera is notorious for having pretty awful representation of females. The men are shown in a better light, but still read as far less than believable humans. They do great things, but they also seem so poorly challenged. As others have also recently done, Osborne corrects things in two ways thus: the genders are treated more equally, and in many regards the gender does not even need to matter (such as clothes or occupation or relationships); all are written with strengths and weakness, and their victories are earned. As much as I loved the character of Ash, I loved Natalie even more. This may be because she and her past still remain dark and mysterious to the readers in many ways (compared to so much of Ash’s point of view). I’m excited to see that the next novel actually is with Natalie as protagonist.
There is only one criticism I would make of Architects of Memory; it comes from its compressed setting, but I was very willing to look past and forgive it amid the abundant things the novel excels at. So many important events occur offscreen (in the past) to have made the present that the novel explores. OK, I admit that’s kind of a dumb statement. Of course the background to a story’s plot has huge monumental events that shape the plot. But here there are some whose absence lessens that impact that plot threads, character relationships, could otherwise have. One instance is the broad close-knit relationship between the Twenty-Five‘s crew, often described by Ash as a family. Cracks and tensions that form in this family, betrayals that occur, happen before readers have gotten to fully see the degree of trust and friendship there. Ash at least relate how things were different, however. The more unfortunate example is the relationship between Keller and Ash. Ash’s love for Christopher, Kate, and herself form the emotional heart of the novel, and it would have been great to see more of her together with the Captain. To Osborne’s credit, she does try to solve this with hallucinations that are a side-effect of the Celestium sickness. I can’t honestly think how Osborne could have solved this without creating other problems, so maybe my criticism here is totally unwarranted. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that my one regret from reading Architects of Memory is that with other constraints it couldn’t explore that relationship between these two great characters more.
With its excellent pacing, compelling characters, and riveting plot, Architects of Memory is a novel that makes the reader want to enjoy the ride in one sitting, or as few as possible. Although it has a sequel, Engines of Oblivion is the intended end to the duology, to my knowledge. And, if you were inclined to just stop with the close of this one, Osborne does a fantastic job at wrapping the events of this episode up in a satisfying way, which makes further adventures possible and welcome, but not obligatory.
For any interested, excerpts from Architects of Memory are available to read on Tor.com and the Tor/Forge blog. I’ll be starting my copy of Engines of Oblivion in the next days and will have a review of that up here shortly after completing, and I also hope to have up an interview with author Karen Osborne on the two novels and her machinations for the future. Look for those then, and if you haven’t yet started with this one, what are you waiting for?