Dark Horse by Michelle Diener

I'm a bit of a glutton when it comes to Sci-Fi. Dangle the possibility of a well-written space opera in front of me and I'm going to bite every. single. time. I do claim a handful of favorites (Linnea Sinclair, Ann Aguirre, Tanya Huff) but new discoveries are too few and far between for my personal liking (or reading habits). A while back I put Michelle Diener's Dark Horse on my WL after reading a recommendation for it at a sci-fi blog that of course I can't remember the name of now. After waiting patiently, it finally went on sale and I snapped it up and settled in with moderately high hopes. Reader, I am happy to report I was totally blown away by this uniquely crafted story!

Rose McKenzie is going to get off this spaceship if it kills her. After being unceremoniously picked up from earth by some particularly nasty aliens (aliens!) and experimented upon, she and fellow prisoner Sazo have bided their time until they finally can take control and flee in a smaller vessel. Her 'rescue' arrives in the form of Captain Dav Jallan and his crew of Grih explorers who are understandably wary of Rose and her many contradictions. But Sazo has definite plans for their previous captors and Rose finds herself caught in the middle of a inter-species conflict where her loyalty is torn between her future and the good of all.

Witty, fast paced and utterly dynamic in scope, Dark Horse was a brilliant read start to finish. Many other winning qualities aside, the characters of Rose and Sazo were complete standouts. Too often in my travels as a sci-fi reader, the human, thrust into an alien society, is naive or at a distinct cultural disadvantage, making her easy prey. Not so with Rose. Due to Sazo's foresight and Rose's natural intelligence, she is right there along with everyone else -- if not two steps ahead. She is loyal and cunning (but without malice) and endearingly brave. But neither is she a warrior; which makes it that much more satisfying to see her outmaneuver these more 'advanced' races. And Sazo is just as multi-faceted; his whirlwind development throughout the book is nothing short of genius.

Here's one of my favorite bits where Rose is trying to explain how she is able to figure out advanced alien technology so quickly (with the added bonus of trying to describe what a book is):

"That your familiarity is because your people have imagined a higher level of advancement, but haven't yet achieved it. Is this true?"

Rose nodded. "We've thought up lots of interesting things. Some of them we may turn into reality, others won't ever see the light of day."

"But how do you disseminate the ideas?"

"Written comms, visual comms."

"But if it isn't reality, what visual comms do you record? How can you record something that is imaginary?"

"People pretend it isn't imaginary, and act the story out. It's a sought-after job on my planet."

Kila made a note, but she seemed completely stunned. "And the written comms?"

"You write something that is like a report, only it's about something that hasn't happened yet."

"A lie?"

"No. A lie is a deliberate falsification. A story openly declares itself as imaginary."

"And why would people spend time reading something that is untrue?"

"Because it's fun. Exciting. When it isn't real, you can enjoy it because people aren't really getting hurt, aren't really in danger, aren't really at rock bottom. If the story writer is good, they'll make you think it is real, even as you know, at the back of your mind, that it isn't."

Exciting indeed. Bring on Dark Deeds, Ms. Diener. I'm properly hooked.

series reading order:
~ Dark Horse
~ Dark Deeds
~ Dark Minds