Review: Grand Central Arena

Grand Central Arena‘ by Ryk E. Spoor is exactly the sort of book I expect from Baen. Substantial, sweeping, sprawling, however you want to describe it. BIG! Big ideas, bold characters, mind-bending science and really cool aliens all packed inside a bright and colourful cover. Set in a future on the cusp of FTL travel, this novel takes an intrepid band of adventurers and thrusts them into the unknown. I love these sorts of books and this is exactly the reason I picked this one to read.

Dr. Simon Sandrisson has developed a drive that enables FTL travel. For his first manned test flight, he recruits his partner Dr. Mark DuQuesne, ace pilot Ariane Austin, and five other scientists and engineers. There is speculation that the human element (times eight) is unnecessary, but when the Holy Grail emerges from FTL with all automated systems off-line and the nuclear reactor not reacting, the human element saves the day. Ariane manages to steer the ship away from a mysterious wall in space and into the interior of the sphere surrounding them. Integrated AIs are offline, leaving the crew to think for themselves and at first the puzzle seems beyond them. They’re trapped in a bubble approximately twenty thousand kilometres across. The appearance of docking rings perfectly matched to their ship invites them to land and clearly sends the message that where ever they are, they are not alone.

After some exploration, the crew discovers they have arrived at the Grand Central Station of space, a set of interconnecting spheres that represent the home systems of every species. The scale of all of this is difficult to grasp even in the book, so I’m not going to try and convey it here. Suffice to say, it’s BIG and Spoor’s descriptions and the reaction of his characters do it justice. Within the sphere, the different species interact according to a set of rules set by the arena, itself. Yep, the arena has a voice, one of the creepy omnipresent sort and part of the fun of this book is speculation as to who or what the arena is, who built it and why.

In order to get home, the crew needs enough power to activate the Sandrisson Drive. In order to barter for that power, they need to increase the standing of their faction, Humanity. Challenges are issued and accepted, each win and defeat folding into a delicate pleat. Politics and motivation constantly shift as the crew strives to learn the rules and avoid making too many mistakes and enemies. This is a first contact situation, after all. Only instead of meeting just one species, they’ve met what seems like the entire universe, all at once.

Grand Central Arena‘ is a long book, but the 688 pages are jam packed with science, interesting dialogue, character development, exciting combat, world-building of the most extreme kind, politicking and adventure. It reads very quickly, even if you don’t skim the science, which I did, just a bit. Seeing as my version of science is baking in a domestic kitchen, I took it for granted the author knew his stuff or was sufficiently thrilled by it to make it sound good and moved forward to the action. The first challenge against the Molothos is really exciting. I loved DuQuesne’s role in it and how he developed as a character. His continued thoughts and obvious attraction to Ariane are a source of delight to me as a reader. The second challenge, the sky race, is equally thrilling. Ariane’s date with Simon Sandrisson made me giggle. They talked about science and both obviously enjoyed the discussion.

The difference between the factions is fascinating. Ariane’s conversations with Nyanthus, leader of the Faith, were packed full of philosophical religious comparison. The newly ascended Mandallon provides a lot of humour here as well. The extreme risk-averse nature of the aliens, in general, is equally interesting. As an underlying theme, it really ties together so many elements of the plot. The danger posed by many of the factions and their politicking is very real, however.

I didn’t expect such depth from these characters. I looked for fun, and found that and so much more. The characters tugged at my emotions, particularly Mark DuQuesne. His internal conflict is such a perfect echo of the situation they all find themselves in. I also didn’t expect the book to be so philosophical. I kept nodding and muttering as I read through certain conversations. I agreed with the author on so many points, yet I never felt as if I read an essay. ‘Grand Central Arena’ is always a novel, one that absorbs and entertains.

I really love Baen. They’re the sort of publisher where you really know what you’re getting when you pick up one of their books. They’re bloody consistent. I really liked this book, too. My only complaint would be the internal monologues each character indulged in. A couple of paragraphs of italics in the middle of a conversation often distracted and detracted. Trim those a bit and I’d be pinning five gold stars to the cover. Nevertheless, I’ve already got the sequel, ‘Spheres of Influence’, loaded up on my Kindle and I can’t wait to read it.

Note: After posting this review to SFCrowsnest, I got to chatting with the author about his influences and one of us current projects, a re-released, expanded version of his first solo novel, Digital Knight, due out later this year. We’ve set up a couple of projects. I’m going to read the first Skylark series by E.E. “Doc” Smith before heading into Spheres of Influence. Get a feel for the author that Spoor notably pays homage to. Then I’m going to read the original version of Digital Knight so I can contrast and compare with the new release. After all that, Ryk Spoor and I will chat. I like doing interviews and always prefer to do them with authors whose books I have really enjoyed. Even though it means reading more books (really?), I’m looking forward to this one. I’ll be sure to post my interview here as well.

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