Thursday, November 16, 2023

Review: The Ghosts of Trappist by K B Wagers

Ending the Neo-G trilogy by leveraging the found family on board the ships of the futuristic space coast guard to tell a story of secrets lies, and autonomy.

The previous two novels in K B Wagers’ series, A Pale Light in the Black and Hold Fast Through the Fire have shown the development and growth of the crew of the Zuma’s Ghost (as well as other spacecraft) of the Neo-G, the futuristic space coast guard that patrols not only our solar system, but also the Trappist system, currently under colonization. But the secrets, lies and past of both Zuma’s Ghost and its sister ship Dread’s Treasure, and their crews, come roaring back, even as ancient secrets in the Trappist system threaten all they hold dear.

This is the story of The Ghosts of Trappist, the final novel in the trilogy.

There are many tangling plotlines and development that have gone through the series, a layering of characters, groups of characters, goals, ambitions, wishes, hopes, fears and dangers. In this novel, Wagers, using a new and the biggest threat yet to the Neo-G yet. And then there are the personal challenges, and remembrances of past events, that haunt the members of Zuma’s Ghost and Dread Treasure, and not only threaten their on the job skill, but their very lives as well. The title Ghosts of Trappist has a multilayered meaning on the word "ghost", both on character's level as well as the main overarching storyline of ghostly enemies threatening the Trappist system.

And did I mention the Neo-G is trying desperately to maintain their standing as Boarding Games champions? Back in the first novel, they were up and comers, trying desperately to make their mark. Now, they are at their peak, at their pinnacle, but uneasy lies the crown, and staying the best is harder than fighting one’s way to the top in many ways (it is no coincidence that the lyrics of the song “Eye of the Tiger” ran through my head in the Boarding Games sequences).

It’s hard to wrap up a series, although this is Wagers’ third trilogy that she has brought to a conclusion. With a lot of spinning plates, and a lot of plotlines to squeeze into the pages, Wagers does an admirable job in bringing the character arcs of all of the characters to satisfactory and reasonable manner and it is no mean feat. As always, I am a big fan of Jenks, who in addition to her knowledge of 20-21st century lore, also has a deep and abiding heart. I am also a fan of the artificial dog, the Rover known as Doge. Doge is an AI, of a nature and capability that no one, not even him, is fully sure about.

I want to talk about AI, because the major focus of the novel is artificial intelligence. Not ChatGPT sort of Large Language Models, but actual artificial intelligence. Or is it? How do you recognize real artificial intelligence, a sentient artificial being that can grow, change and learn? And what do you do about that when you encounter one? Wagers explores, from a couple of sides, the ethics of autonomy, freedom, self-determination and the rights of such beings... and what makes someone intelligent in the first place. And, given the conflicts of the novel, what happens when such a being (not Doge, he’s a good dog!) goes rogue and becomes a danger to others?

Another character’s storyline I want to highlight is that of Lt. Max. Maxine is part of the powerful solar-systems-spanning Carmichael family. Her enlistment and her career in the Neo-G are expressly against the orders of the family, who are horrified that a scion of the family could “stoop” to such a position, a level, and a role. They have and had, after all, a position, a path, a life mapped out them. And Max is being ungrateful and selfish for not following that path and position. In the course of the novel, Max struggles with how to deal with her family. And at one point she considers severing ties with her family completely and utterly. She has a heart-to-heart with a former family member. The former family member uses language about the risks and realities of being ostracized that I recognize today in discussing the LGBTQ experience. It is most definitely meant as a metaphor in a novel. In a series and from a writer who is very keenly interested in depicting and promoting a queer friendly world (and this world is very much so), Wagers nevertheless shows the reality of our world today through this metaphor.

No matter what, though, the end, for Max, for Doge, for all the other characters for that matter, there are no HEA’s, only “good for now” in a world like the Neo-G and even that can be fragile, and still haunted by the ghosts of the past. There is hope that the moment is good, but there is a strong sense of fighting for that good moment, and recognizing that it’s time will finally come to an end--but not right now. Now can be good. But it is not won without effort, and sometimes, cost. That was a theme of the second book, and that is very definitely a theme of this third book.

One way I really liked how Wagers tied it all together is the final set piece confrontation with the artificial intelligence enemy in their stronghold. Having spent much of the book fightings ghosts and shadows to finally unmask their foe, the finale is a tour-de-force of a capstone of a long set of action sequences. These sequences give everybody on the two crews a chance to shine, moments of spotlight, and to contribute to the overall goal. Characters unleashed to be the best part of themselves, doing what they do the best. I made the connection to the Boarding Games immediately, and Wagers makes it clear that the Neo-G plays hard in the Boarding Games, so that they have the skills for the “real world”. One can pick out, in this capstone long set, how various ideas and metaconcepts of the Boarding Games reflect the complicated and dangerous approach to dealing with the foe. Even though the Boarding Games competition is over by the time of this capstone action sequence, this sequence against their enemy on multiple levels, and vectors, problems and problem solving, and outright courage, daring and skill, felt like the real Boarding Games all along.

With this book, the author now has nine books in her oeuvre, and a real penchant and talent for action oriented space opera that is queer friendly, has lots of female and NB protagonists, and is a lot of fun to read. I’ve enjoyed the evolution and development of her writing, deepening her skills while maintaining the balance and innate fun of her novels, and look forward to what she will write next.


The Math

Highlights: Team Jenks, thought-provoking ideas on artificial intelligence, excellent and fun action beats that keep the pages turning

Wagers, K.B., The Ghosts of Trappist, [Harper Voyager 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.