by Terrence King
Genre: Science Fiction / Action & Adventure
Print Length: 268 pages
Reviewed by Kathy L. Brown
A disparate group finds each other through essential common cause.
In Critical Habitat, author Terrence King presents a world almost destroyed by environmental catastrophe and a society near collapse.
The Authority maintains order over the declining civilian population through food rationing and psychotropic drugs. However, within The Authority itself, power is fragmented and the government is ripe for a coup.
From hidden bases in remote areas, rebels oppose The Authority. Their enclaves are the only locations in which traditional crops can be grown due to the presence of the endangered bee population. The rebels try to win over the civilians with food supplies and medical care.
Honeybees are both a symbol and an actual object of contention. To the rebels, the bees mean hope for the future. But to The Authority, they mean control and power. The Authority’s territories are so polluted and arid they cannot sustain plant life or pollinator populations. Thus, The Authority, particularly General Speer, the story’s main antagonist, are obsessed with capturing the bees.
Opposing General Speer are two teenaged rebel spies, X and Y. The kids have stolen some important data from Speer and embark on the long and dangerous journey back to their rebel base.
Mel, a paroled prisoner, reluctantly agrees to track down the kids and recover the data stick, but a small flying droid is assigned to keep tabs on Mel. Mel quickly realizes she’s been manipulated by The Authority and joins the struggle for freedom, along with an elder martial artist, an adorable arial robot, and a swashbuckling smuggler.
The story follows the various protagonists through perils from the unforgiving landscape and its inhabitants to The Authority. They soon join forces to continue more dangerous encounters, but they don’t trust each other. The double-dealing and suspicion make bad situations worse.
Yet, a natural impulse for human bonding is at work in the characters as well. Mel can’t help but feel protective of X and Y. “Even the children weren’t causing a racket. Instead, they were conked out, basking in the roaring campfire’s glow—the portable, handheld fire lamp’s lush emerald light. Dancing green flames coated their serene faces like they were leafy-coated goblins, curled in comfort.” And, although raised up as freedom fighters, they are still kids and want to rely on a parental figure.
The characters are well-rounded with unique voices and backstories that are revealed only as needed. Their actions are the things that tell their story best. Character voices are singular: the kids bicker, and the adults flirtishly snark at each. Both types of interaction are natural and genuine for the characters even if a bit cringey to witness at times. The bad guy, General Speer is quite insane, and his motivation is power for its own sake. His rise is an indictment of just how dysfunctional The Authority is.
Critical Habitat’s prose is skillful and the voice confident. The book successfully integrates worldbuilding details into the plot, enriching the background and genuinely affecting the people and their goals in the foreground.
Readers who enjoyed the Star Wars Universe stories will appreciate much of Critical Habitat. It’s a post-apocalyptic story with an eye to the environmental as well as social decay of a bleak future.
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