Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Five Unicorn Flush by T.J. Berry

An entertaining sequel, though its characters are more compelling than its plot stakes

Last year's Space Unicorn Blues was a fascinating concept, the magical fantasy-space opera mashup that took its narrative to surprisingly dark places, with galaxy-wide exploitation and one of the most hard-headed and stupid human societies I've seen represented in fiction for a while. That book told an entertaining story with an ending that left the main strands of plot satisfied while setting up plenty of material for a potential sequel - a continuation which is now a glorious reality.

Five Unicorn Flush picks up close to where Space Unicorn Blues left off, six weeks after all of the Bala - the group of magical aliens who all look like creatures from western European folklore - are transported by a powerful third race from the human -controlled space where they had been exploited and used for parts and onto a secret far-off planet where they can start again. As this transportation also includes all Bala artefacts in human space, and these include all of humanity's known FTL fuels (of which the most reliable is unicorn horn) this has a pretty major effect on humanity's empire - called "The Reason" while also making it nearly impossible for the Bala to be pursued. Unfortunately, there are a couple of very persistent individuals left on the human side, one of whom is Jenny Peralta, disabled Maori space captain whose testimony ensured that humans and the Bala would be separated, despite losing her dryad wife in the equation. Meanwhile, on their new (very pink) home, the Bala, under the unicorn leadership of Gary Cobalt and his father Findae, are trying to make the best of what turns out to be a difficult planet to make their home on. Throw in some continuing meddling from the Pymmie, the all-powerful third species who called this time-out in the first place, and the continuing interference of Cowboy Jim, the useful but awful white man from the first book who is now masquerading as a Reason officer, and you've got all the ingredients for a seriously packed sequel that lives up to the weirdness of its premise.

Five Unicorn Flush shines brightest in its characters. Jenny is a great protagonist, a deeply flawed mess of a woman whose past - especially with Gary - contains inexcusable crimes intertwined with moments of selfless brilliance. What's perhaps unusual about Jenny is her level of self awareness and how she processes her guilt, which separates her out from the mountains of thoughtless bringers of carnage or tortured yet righteous anti-heroes who somehow always find justification for continuing to do the things that caused their guilt. Jenny fought against the Bala, and exploited Gary, and now her regret means that she acts in different (though not any less reckless) ways towards other people and in pursuit of her goals. In the first book, Jenny's largely sympathetic portrayal grated on me, but I think the greater distance from the Bala and increased remorse in her point of view mitigates that - it also helps that the details of her history with Gary aren't spelled out in nearly as much detail this time around. The other thing that makes Jenny stand out is that she's disabled - left without the use of her legs after a wartime event - and now in chronic pain following a partial attempt by Gary to heal her. The narrative strikes a great balance between showcasing Jenny's talents and giving her a ton of ingenious action sequences while never letting us forget that, when the gravity is on, Jenny is a wheelchair user, with all the accessibility challenges that brings in the thoughtlessly designed environments of Reason ships.

Compared to Jenny, Gary is a blander protagonist, though not to the point where his chapters are less enjoyable. The strength of his arc here lies in his understated but important interactions with his father, Findae, who has just returned to the Reason after a hundred year nap. Findae's expectations on how the Bala should live, up to and including the assumption that unicorns should remain benevolent but absolute rulers without consulting the opinions of the other groups they rule over, clash significantly with his son's experiences and attitudes towards leadership - and, of course, as Gary is only half-unicorn, he has a significantly harder time throwing that assumption of divine right around in the first place. Like in Space Unicorn Blues, Gary spends quite a lot of time getting told off, beaten up, and even dissolved by acid, and while he comes out of these experiences physically unharmed (thanks to some immortal unicorn healing powers) the way he internalises and deals with being a punching bag makes his development here interesting to follow.

Unfortunately, Five Unicorn Flush's plotting doesn't quite live up to the promise of its main characters. Nearly half of the book is spent switching between Gary's relatively passive attempts to placate the rest of the Bala and encourage them to make a go of their new home rather than disappearing back into the stars, while Jenny engages in a technically plot-relevant but very sidequesty-feeling heist on a generation ship full of cannibals, which involves her getting frozen to near-death and shot out into space without a suit all in the space of a few short hours. While it's a fun sequence, especially with the interactions between Jenny, her ship's AI, and the AI of the ship they have entered - it does slow the book down at the point where the plot could really do with some extra introductions to keep everything ticking. Once the heist is done - complete with introduction of an elf ghost who turns out to play quite an interesting role in the overall plot - and things heat up on the Bala's planet, Five Unicorn Flush does kick into gear, but it then has to contend with some rather left-field character reintroductions (yes, it's great to see Ricky from the first book again, but... she's been where this whole time? Did I forget something that would have made this make sense?) and yet more pointless-feeling sidequests before its eventual, slightly rushed climax. As a second book, much of Five Unicorn Flush's climax relies on developing emotional beats from its predecessor - and I can't imagine the heart of this book would work if you haven't been on the previous journey with Gary, Jenny and all - while also setting up some interesting plot hooks for further instalments. That's all well and good, but it's a shame that it comes at the expense of this volume standing up well alone.

Despite this, Five Unicorn Flush is great entertainment, set in an imaginative universe that leans in to the absurdity of its premise while using it to interrogate high stakes scenarios with moral weight behind them. Like Tim Pratt's Axiom series (also published by Angry Robot, who clearly know what they're doing when it comes to this particular strand of science fiction), and Alex White's Salvagers, this is highly entertaining space opera with a nice mix of standard and novel plot elements that I'm still invested in for at least the next volume.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 Fun but weighty worldbuilding

Penalties: -1 A slow-to-start plot that doesn't stand up well alone

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Berry, T.J.. Five Unicorn Flush [Angry Robot, 2019].