– By J.W. Fox –
The Circuit is one of my favorite new space operas and Earthfall delivers as the final installment in the trilogy. Similar to The Expanse in some respects, it takes a dimmer view on humanity’s future and our ability to prevent interplanetary conflict. Note, none of the novels are stand alones so you need to start at book one, Executor Rising. Don’t worry, the books flow very well and are not long. Many of us a reluctant to get invested in a new series, but this one was worth it.
The Circuit takes place centuries in the future after a planetary catastrophe renders Earth uninhabitable. A new natural resource called gravitum is discovered, which fuels our colonization of the Solar System but also leads to the sterilization of our home world. After the catastrophe, humanity resides on numerous worlds, from Mars all the way to the moons of Neptune. Some have fallen under the spell of a new religion, called the New Earth Spirit, a faith that sees Earth’s fall as divine punishment.
The faith evolves into an oppressive theocratic regime known as the New Earth Tribunal. Led by the Tribunes with their own order of assassins known as executors, they dominate the inner worlds including Mars and Earth’s Moon.
The rest of humanity are largely atheistic, cynical, and downtrodden. They are survivors who consider the human race damned. Tension grows between the two sides but the outer belt dwellers avoid open war. A scheming former Tribune named Cassius Vale has other plans.
The second novel ended with the start of the war. The New Earth Tribunal was defeated in the first battle but still has a powerful navy with which to counterattack the heretics. They are scattered and divided. The strongest faction among them, the Ceresian clans, unite to fight the Tribunes but are vastly outgunned. They need a miracle.
In many space operas, humanity is still tightly tethered to its home world. Author Rhett C. Bruno chose a different approach. Earth is dead but humanity has survived by fleeing to the other worlds in the Solar System, their barren home not far away. After centuries, the old religions and cultural traditions have faded replaced by a strange Frankenstein concoction of pseudo-Roman theocratic rule and isolated clan-based societies.
It is a new dark age, where we have regressed back to our ancient and medieval social structures. American audiences expect the heroes to lead a revolution toward enlightenment and ending the dark age. That is not what happens here. The story arc is not one of resistance, revolution, victory and ascension to some new golden age of freedom and justice.
Cassius Vale, one of the POV characters, is not a freedom fighter or idealist. His solution is simpler: break our bonds with Earth and give himself absolute power to lead humanity into its new age. Combined with his brutal past, there is nothing truly heroic or good about Cassius. He is definitely not a hero, but not quite a villain either. He is an apocalyptic figure similar to Shiva the destroyer of evil, an important role in Hindu cosmology. Where progress isn’t possible, one must sometimes start over by wiping clean the old.
The New Earth Tribunal is a dystopian society lacking in any redeeming qualities. Sage Volus, a former executor, is living proof of their barbarism. Using a combination of implants and behavioral conditioning, Sage is indoctrinated into unquestioning service to the Tribunes. That service extends beyond killing innocent people to include sexual enslavement. It is clear in all three novels that the Tribune is the true enemy of humanity.
Sadly, humanity does not have better options. The Ceresian clans, for example, are nothing more than glorified crime families. They oppress their people almost as much as the New Earth Tribunal.
Cassius cares for Sage, freeing her from her enslavement but they do not see things the same way. Her evolution is one of a slave learning to make choices on her own for the first time. She chooses her mission and fights alongside Cassius but not for his cause. Her purpose is far smaller in scale, namely redemption for her past crimes. While Cassius’s apocalyptic plan drives the novel, Sage has some influence on him as the story unfolds.
There are two other POV characters but they are not quite as compelling as Cassius and Sage. ADIM is Cassius’s trusty robot companion. There is a father-son dynamic that develops but it isn’t the strongest part of the book. ADIM is the familiar Pinocchio-type AI character who desires to become human. He also has the typical Creator-worship mentality.
Talon Rayne, a Ceresian henchmen for one of the clans, brings the common man’s perspective to the conflict. He despises the Tribunes but his only concern is his daughter. He’s a little bit of a blue-collar hero stereotype, a good man living in tough times, working for bad people. Hardworking, keeps his head down, and is at home among the unwashed masses. Talon just seemed a little too good to be true at times but does provide an important perspective to the story.
The first two novels are a bit more character driven, while the third is driven by events already in motion (thanks to Cassius). His master plan is only slightly inconvenienced by the actions of the other characters. So really, this book is about Cassius Vale’s vision for humanity. It may seem like Talon is the protagonist at times but in the end, it is the very complicated ex-Tribune. The ending is not a conventional one, which is a positive in my opinion, but some might find it disappointing. It stays true to the vision of the protagonist without pulling punches.
Although Earthfall has some heavy themes, the dialogue and plot are pretty straightforward. It reads like a YA novel, but does not fit in that category. The accessible style somewhat limits its ability to fully explore its ideas, however. It’s reach may slightly exceed its grasp but not by much. In any event, most readers probably will not be bothered by it.
It has action, strong world-building, compelling characters, and a big finish, almost everything you need for a great space opera. Readers do not need to appreciate the apocalyptic undertones to enjoy it. It is first and foremost, a sci-fi action novel and more than delivers on that front.
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.