Review of ‘Horizon’ by Keith Stevenson

Horizon is the début novel of blogger, editor, and writer Keith Stevenson. A combination thriller, mystery, and more traditional science fiction tale, it focuses on commander Cait Dyson, on her ship’s exploratory mission to a distant planet whose importance proves to be much more substantial than she bargained for. Some good bits of tension, and a healthy dose of mystery helped deal with a plot that managed to seem a little boring in spite of, or perhaps because of the scale of the story compared to that of the narrative. An interesting attempt to capture some of the claustrophobic feel of Alien that fell victim to a few flaws.

Thirty-four light years from Earth, the explorer ship Magellan is nearing its objective – the Iota Persei system. But when ship commander Cait Dyson wakes from deepsleep, she finds her co-pilot dead and the ship’s AI unresponsive. Cait works with the rest of her multinational crew to regain control of the ship, until they learn that Earth is facing total environmental collapse and their mission must change if humanity is to survive.
As tensions rise and personal and political agendas play out in the ship’s cramped confines, the crew finally reach the planet Horizon, where everything they know will be challenged.

Alright, so. The worst kind of mediocre book is the one that sounded like it could have been excellent. Lost potential is the name of the game here. The first problem with trying to create a who-dunnit murder mystery on a ship is when you have the ship’s crew be five people. One person is dead to set the tone, another dies to raise the stakes, we already know the point-of-view character didn’t do it, so there’s not much mystery left. While I dig the ‘personal and political agendas’ playing out, the same issue of population serves to make this some pretty weak sauce as well. Earth sent out a mission of potentially monumental importance to the human race? Sure. They decided this mission only needed five people? Maybe not the best plan but I’ll play along. They basically sent one person per cultural background? Well, if there are only five people, that’s a reasonable way to do it. All of them, at the first sign of any stressors became xenophobic if not racist? Come on now. Don’t you people have some psych evaluations for this sort of thing? A whole nation of people needed to come up with ONE qualified spaceperson who wouldn’t immediately blame the person with another colour of skin when things went south. Is that so hard? This was pretty heavy-handed. I hope this wasn’t intended to be any sort of larger reaching commentary because clue-by-fours are more insulting than effective. We get it. Overcoming differences and working together would have made their lives easier. That’s why they (presumably, not shown or mentioned) would have maybe trained together, gotten to know one another and so on? Eh.

Those flaws aside, though, the general idea of what was going on was well played. The individual scenes were rife with great tension, and excellent dialogue. As closeups of a larger story going on elsewhere on the ship, they would have been phenomenal. Forced to carry the story entirely on their own, they felt almost melodramatic. The comparison to Alien that I made up top there holds true. A lot of the really nasty ‘something here is trying to kill us’ tension was present, and effective. One or two scenes really landed it, but not enough to actually build throughout the story. The characters at least, were well-formed and distinct, and I enjoyed getting to learn about their personalities. But I couldn’t help feeling like their need to stand in for their entire culture handicapped their ability to read well as unique characters.

The actual story as it developed was yet another case of lots of potential and not really living up to it. The wrench which was thrown into what they thought of as their mission did a great job raising stakes and making their actions and decisions feel more important, but the eventual conclusion thereof left me wanting more. It all resolved just a little too pat given how chaotic and up-in-the-air everything was up until that point. The built in ‘and guess what, a sequel!’ elements unfortunately do not excite me or make me really look forward to the next instalment. The story wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t excellent, and nothing about where it looks like it is going isn’t ground that hasn’t been trodden many times by authors who’ve done a much better job than I’d expect Stevenson to do.

This is a debut novel though, so it’s hard to be too condemnatory. I’ll have absolutely given worse scores to works by much more established authors. Horizon was competent. Well written scene by scene, but didn’t really gel for me as a whole. It gives me hope that with a bit more experience writing full-length novels, Stevenson will develop into an author more in the vein of a Peter F. Hamilton. The ability to tell larger-scale science-fiction stories while still keeping the focus ratcheted down on a core group of characters is rare, and excellent when it works well, and I feel like Horizon, while a bit of a failure to live up to its potential, demonstrates clearly that Keith Stevenson has that potential.

Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from HarperCollins via Netgalley.

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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