Alex White’s thrilling ‘A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe’ assembles a band of misfits for a perilous treasure hunt

June 20, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 20, 2019

Alex White, an Alabama resident who uses the gender-neutral pronoun they, has published at least five novels, the first of which appeared in 2011. (Goodreads also credits White with a 2005 novel.)

2018 was an extremely prolific year for White. In April, they published Alien: The Cold Forge, licensed from the 20th Century Fox science-fiction film franchise that was recently acquired by the Disney empire. Two months later, White followed up with an original book, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. In December, White published A Bad Deal for the Whole Universe, a sequel to A Big Ship in what is billed as the Scavengers series. (A third entry in the series, The Worst of All Possible Worlds, is due out in a year.)

I checked a digital copy of A Big Ship out of my local library based on a half-read description. I was attracted by the prospect of a ragtag band seeking out a powerful lost warship that some dismiss as fictitious.

Once I began reading A Big Ship, I was a bit taken aback to discover that it was a science-fiction/fantasy genre crossover. Although the story is set in a future where humans have colonized many different star systems and journey in faster-than-light spaceships, most of the characters use magic. I also was a bit put off by the characters, who are something of a motley lot.

As the story opens, racer Nilah Brio is leading the standings for the Pan-Galactic Racing Federation’s Driver’s Cup. Brio is extremely talented, but her fixation on her racing career verges on monomania. She finds herself clashing with both her teammate, a longtime friend, and her team’s president, a surrogate parent, moments before she settles into her cockpit for a race on Gantry Station.

However, as she transits a racetrack tunnel while stuck behind the circuit’s slowest driver, Brio is witness to a bizarre intrusion on the course caused by an older magician who sports a strange brass mask. The interloper, Mother, kills the other racer before turning her malign attentions to Brio, who melds multiple types of magic to teleport randomly to a remote, dangerous level of Gantry…

Meanwhile, the novel’s other lead, Elizabeth “Boots” Elsworth, is at a personal nadir. After her homeworld, Clarkesfall, was destroyed by famine and war, the former fighter pilot hosted a popular TV show chronicling her (mostly) successful search for a magical artifact. Elsworth sells leads for other would-be treasure hunters, but nothing’s panned out for her or her clients in a while, and her bank account is running on fumes.

Worse yet, someone has just torched Elsworth’s office, destroying most of her meager assets. The worst thing of all is that Capricious, the ship Elsworth served on as a member of one of Clarkesfall’s military services, has just docked at Gantry — and Elsworth is certain that Captain Cordell Lamarr, her old commander and a disgruntled recent customer, isn’t interested in discussing fond memories from the old days…

It’s Brio’s bad fortune that Elsworth runs across her, recognizes that she’s the subject of a hefty bounty, and paralyzes her only moments before Orna Sokol, Capricious’s quartermaster and main gunsel (and de facto engineer, from what I can tell), finds Elsworth and paralyzes her. When Elsworth wakes up, she and her accidental companion in Capricious’s brig.

After a contentious reunion in which Lamarr tells Elsworth that she’ll be an involuntary passenger aboard Capricious until she makes good on the bogus information she sold them, the ship is abruptly targeted by hostile ships. With an eye toward survival, Elsworth hops into the cockpit of her lovingly restored MRX-20 warplane:

Boots’s breath hitched as she spun and dove after the nearest fighter. The maneuver nearly put her in red-out, and she felt an upward pull on her jowls that hadn’t been there last time she flew. The enemy pilot dropped incinerator charges, little suns that would fry anything that got too close. Boots flipped the Runner so she passed over them with its belly, shielding her from the radiation. She hit two more with her dispersers and laid into the craft with her slingers. 

She landed a solid shot in his power plant, and his eidolon core went up, spraying the entire craft across the stars in a sparkling crimson haze. She veered off; eidolon debris was nothing to play with. 

“That makes twenty,” said Boots. “You tell Cordell if I die today, I die an ace.” 

“You die today, there won’t be anyone to tell. Make a low pass by the resonance tower. This bastard won’t come in range.” 

“Why the tower?” 

“Because I said so, old-timer.” 

“Salty little…” Boots circled the Capricious, staying just out of range of Cordell’s shields before dipping under the half-mangled tower. Out of nowhere, [Sokol’s spacesuit] Ranger bounded up and leapt onto Boots’s maneuvering thrusters, riding her like a horse. 

Boots winced as the armor’s claws raked across the hull, digging in. “What was that about scratching the paint?” 

“Shut up. It’s my ship and this is awesome.” 

Together, they swept after the enemy fighter. Ranger’s mass considerably altered the flight dynamics, but Boots could compensate if she concentrated. The sluggishness actually helped, since Boots still wasn’t up to speed on the thrusters. The MRX-20 was so much more violent than she remembered. 

When Ranger’s guns thundered, the whole hull shook with their fury. Up close to their target, Orna switched to homing fire, her monstrous sigil canister rotating out with the spent one. The enemy fighter popped a disperser field, destroying the spells on contact, and Boots climbed to avoid the inert shells. 

It emerges that Elsworth has a legitimate lead on the possible location of the Harrow, a missing capital ship of some renown, which may not be quite as vanished as conventional wisdom holds. Moreover, whatever faction the malevolent Mother belongs to seems to want to keep Harrow’s location under wraps, and has no qualms about killing Brio, Elsworth or whoever else threatens their elaborate plans.

‘A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe’ by Alex White.

White concocts a pleasingly uptempo tale with some compelling developments, and the author knows how to describe dramatic action scenes on the page. It’s a pleasure to watch Capricious’s initially unwilling passengers find common ground with Sokol, Lamarr and their other impromptu shipmates as they realize that cooperation will not only help them protect themselves but also give them a chance to thwart a massive conspiracy.

Despite my misgivings in the early going, I thoroughly enjoyed A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. This was easily one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read this year, along with Richard Morgan’s first two Takeshi Kovacs books, which have a more cynical slant and make for slightly heavier reading. I heartily recommend A Big Ship, and I very much intend to read its sequels.

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