Grief, Trauma, and Space Adventure: Down Among the Dead by KB Wagers

Down Among the Dead is K.B. Wagers’ fifth novel, the middle book of their second trilogy. I should confess up front that I’m a fan: Wagers’ first trilogy is one of the most entertaining and engaging space operas that I’ve ever read, and the second bids fair to build on that—while digging deep into the nature of trauma, trust, and recovery.

You could theoretically have started reading There Before the Chaos, the opening volume of this “Farian War” trilogy, without having read Wagers’ first trilogy in this setting. But fair warning: don’t start with Down Among the Dead if you haven’t read There Before the Chaos. Because Down Among the Dead takes the cliffhanger at the end of There Before the Chaos and runs with it, creating a novel that is as much exploration of grief and trauma as it is a novel of action and space-adventure.

Hail Bristol, Empress of Indrana and former infamous gunrunner, is a pawn in the millennia-long war between the Farians and the Shen. Both sides believe the “Star of Indrana” is the key to their victory—perhaps even their very survival. As Down Among the Dead opens, Hail is a prisoner of the Shen leaders, the brother and sister Aiz and Mia, with only three of her companions. She believes everyone else who accompanied her to a diplomatic summit on Earth is dead, which means that now almost everyone who ever cared for her or ever trusted her, personally, to lead them is gone.

Under the circumstances, it’s not really surprising that Hail’s started hallucinating her lost friends and comrades. Or that, with Aiz pressuring her to join the Shen in order to take down beings the Farians refer to as gods, she accepts the brutal training he offers with reckless disregard for her own well-being and a barely-hidden deathwish. At the same time, she finds it hard to resist a growing attraction to Mia—although Mia refuses to reciprocate, based on their current power disparity.

When rescue finally arrives, Hail finds it difficult to believe in it. The Shen can appear to be almost anyone, and here are people she believed to be dead, alive again and appalled (and appallingly worried) at the state of mind in which they find her. Even once she’s convinced to believe in the truth of her rescuers’ existence, Hail’s recovery will take time. But time’s not a luxury that Hail’s going to be afforded. One way or another, she has to confront the Farian gods, or her empire will be subject to destruction on a scale unmatched in human history. And to do this, she has to convince her rescuers—who care for her deeply—to make common cause with her former captors.

And, oh yeah, confront beings with godlike power who also have the might of the Farian state behind them. Who might, in fact, not be the worst threat that Hail has to face.

From the very beginning, Wagers has demonstrated great abilities with voice, characterisation, and pacing. Down Among the Dead shows that they’re not slackening off. Hail, even at her lowest moments, remains a deeply compelling, engaging character, and Wagers is deft in exploring her psychology, and the raw—at times savage—intensity of her emotions without ever losing sight of Hail’s agency and her choices. The first third of the book focuses on Hail’s gradual de-stablisation, the undermining of her sense of self and reality, but this is paired with an external narrative focusing on training, politics and power relations. Post-rescue, the narrative pivots to a greater focus on action and military/political power, pairing this with Hail’s coming to terms with her experiences—I hesitate to say “recovery” when it’s a lot more clearly about her learning to live with what she’s lived through.

Despite at times heavy themes, ultimately Down Among the Dead isn’t a dark novel, or a bleak one. It’s a story about determination, persistence, friendship, and people coming through for you long after you’ve given up hope of ever seeing them again. And it’s about knowing when to choose to talk instead of fight.

Characteristic for one of Wagers’ non-trilogy ending novels, it ends on a cliffhanger. And since it maintains pace and tension through to the very end, well. I enjoyed it enormously, and I really want to know what happens next.

Check it out. It’s good.

Down Among the Dead is available from Orbit.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known (though not recently, since she started another postgraduate course) to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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