This is a large SF novel that uses the space to fit a lot of themes and ideas into it.

First, we’ve got an inhabited asteroid belt. The date is kept purposefully vague, but its far enough in the future for century-old cargo haulers to exist (it’s reduced to hauling ice from Saturn’s rings to the major asteroids, and described as obsolescent, though we don’t get to see what a modern civilian craft would be like in comparison). This is a staple of an earlier generation of SF writing that isn’t paid nearly enough attention to these days. And it’s well handled here with lots of political and cultural divisions between Earth (not quite sure what the overall government there is like…), Mars, various inhabited asteroids, and the colonies further out.

The the ending is a great seat-of-the-pants ride, which turns bits around, and makes me think of Brin’s Earth and Hogan’s Two Faces of Tomorrow. My only disappointment around that section is that I’d seen the big reveals coming from too far off.

And we have horror elements. These are generally well handled, and their inclusion into the story didn’t cause my horror allergies any trouble. That said… the novel does allow it to descend into fairly trite handling of this part for a big section in the middle. The action is generally well handled, and survives this part, but it did sag for me because it was handled in a too predicable way.

My biggest problem is probably the fixed two-viewpoint characters who alternate chapters structure. This is a device that gets tried every once in a while, and can really warp the structure of a novel as a whole as you try to get it to fit the framework. Here, it mostly works, and the two viewpoints are nicely different enough that their existence help the storytelling. Most of the time, the two characters are far apart and things hold together well. There are places where the structure groans as the tradeoffs between two characters in the same place gets annoying.

But, it works at all because the two characters are well realized. One is fairly smart, but without a great sense of the consequences of his actions. The other is straight out of noir-mysteries, and it takes a while to appreciate just how messed up he is. In fact the major problem here is the lack of outside viewpoints makes it hard to get a bead on what they’re really like. But, this gets developed during the novel, and both do a lot of growing, which is a large part of what drives the novel forward.

I’ve seen some discussion on whether this is ‘space opera’ or not. That depends on how you define it. For me “space opera” is one end of the sliding scale of space opera-scifi-SF-hard SF. I’d put this more into scifi land, sliding towards straight SF. The details of how technology and everything else works aren’t important, or given, here. On the other hand the number of assumptions made about future technology are kept very restrained here, with only the Epstein drive and the main MacGuffin of the story being allowed to break current knowledge in any meaningful way (now… the MacGuffin probably leads to much more in the rest of the series, but this is a fairly restrained foundation). On the other hand, it avoids a lot of things that we generally expect would be around at this point; the emphasis is on ‘people are the same’, which is true enough, what little sense we get of computer technology feels frozen in the ’90s.

Of course, you can define space opera as an indicator of the scope of the story. In that sense, space opera is the SF equivalent to “epic fantasy”, where you’re dealing with the fate of planets and the galaxy at large. This is accompanied by lots of melodrama, and over-the-top action sequences to match the stakes involved. (GM advice in the original WEG Star Wars RPG: “This is space opera, don’t blow up a landspeeder when a planet will do.”) Going by that, yeah, this a pretty good fit for space opera.

I was a bit intimidated by the doorstopper size of the novel at first, but it moves at a good clip, and pulled me on with good writing and pacing, despite occasionally going down some too-well-worn grooves. I am definitely looking forward to the second book after this one wrapped up its main plot very well. It’s also very nice to see a well done SF setting with no FTL for a change.