Karl Drinkwater starts off his Lost Solace series in a daring way. A deserter named Opal has stolen a ship with an experimental AI, which she names Clarissa, and sets off to a location in deep space. There she finds a mystery ship, a luxury liner abandoned and strangely altered. Could it be the one? she asks, where she can find a treasure of incalculable value, the alien artifact known as the Oracle? Nothing unusual about that setup, except for one thing.
It turns out the Oracle is only a means to an end. We don’t find out Opal’s back story or the real motive or object of this quest until after the action is over, near the very end of the novel. It’s a tribute to Drinkwater’s writing skill that he keeps you involved in a riveting story even without the essential knowledge of what it is that Opal is really looking for.
Opal boards the mystery ship, narrowly missing the skewers of alien weapons that arise mysteriously out of its hull, and we’re off.
Lost Ships. Legends talked of them returning – and not empty-handed. There were rumours of unbelievable technology, discoveries that could earn the finder enough money to pursue any dream. Enough money to disappear off the grid for good. And one of the myths had caught Opal’s imagination long ago: the Oracle. Some stories said a sentience sometimes came out of the void when the ships returned centuries later.
A sentience that was able to answer any questions. About the past. About the future. But first you’d have to survive whatever else had hitched a ride on the ship.Lost Solace Kindle location 265
With Clarissa’s help, she wends through a maze of corridors, trap-like rooms, and dangerous passages, working her way toward the ship’s bridge where she hopes to find valuable items that would set her up for life. But she has been pursued by a warship of the Sector Government, whose Captain is determined to take her down and recapture the stolen ship with its invaluable AI.
So just when Opal seems to be mastering the pathways of the strange vessel, she has to fight off highly skilled marines who come after her. Then she’s got a battle with the warship on her hands. It gets edge-of-the-seat exciting through Drinkwater’s meticulous descriptions of each weapon, alien artifact, military tactic and near hopeless encounter with superior force.
At one point, Opal is nearly killed and something marvelous happens. Clarissa feels her death-like experience and briefly takes on her identity. They both go through a kind of rebirth that is one of the dazzling scenes of Lost Solace. This leads to Clarissa ultimately shedding the Clarissa identity that she received from Opal and stepping forth in her own strength as the goddess Athene.
When we get to the late reveal of Opal’s true purpose, these reborn characters, Opal and Athene, are a compelling pair. They have become family as well as allies, and I felt I had to move on immediately to the next book in the series, Chasing Solace.
Opal has received coordinates from an alien artifact that guides her to the next rendezvous. There she finds another mystery ship, which she has to board. At first I thought, Oh no, I can’t take another series of grisly encounters as she works through another maze, but Drinkwater makes this journey equally exciting.
This ship is very different from the first. It is a giant butcher shop, still in use until quite recently. Even though it’s also abandoned, the ship is full of tanks of the liquid remains of slaughtered beasts and a mass of live ones, enormous creatures designed for alien use, all penned up and waiting for slaughter. Opal has to slog her way through all sorts of dreck, this time followed by a relentless lone assassin who comes close to killing her. That assassin is backed up by another warship, this one directed by an AI twin to Athene, and possibly even more advanced than she.
After resisting the clever seductive lure of the distinctly male AI , there are moving scenes between Opal and Clarissa as they are separated once more. This time Opal disappears into the murky atmosphere of a neutron star, only to emerge onto a strange landscape inside a protective bubble. There she still has the companionship of an offshoot of Athene, now named Aegis, after the goddess’s shield.
She was within a vast chamber or domed cavern that glittered like stars or reptilian scales, floating just above an undulating layer that might be rough ground. Except it was often as translucent as everything else, her vision puncturing the static-edged surfaces to a curvature far below. A sphere. The land, the roof or sky or whatever it was, all contained within a massive bubble.Chasing Solace Kindle location 3991
The way Opal and Aegis learn to navigate this bizarre landscape depends on their ability to make careful observations of small visual disturbances that gradually lead them forward. This section is one of the more remarkable in the Lost Solace series. I don’t want to give away exactly what happens, but suffice it to say that Opal has another alien encounter that brings her closer still to achieving her quest.
Drinkwater has the ability to maintain an exciting pace while introducing strange alien landscapes and states of being that are almost incomprehensible. He beautifully balances physical action with the intellectual probing that leads to critical decisions. For a series with really just one human character we get to know well, he builds a complicated relationship story and poses innumerable important questions about human and AI interaction.
I hope he continues this series. There is a third book, called Helene, which is presented as side stories in this universe, possibly a sort of prequel, about the development of the AI that Opal later steals. I’m going to get those stories and recommend that you read the tightly connected pair of novels, Lost Solace and Chasing Solace.