Desert Isle Keeper
Song of Scarabeus / Children of Scarabeus
Sara Creasy’s Song of Scarabaeus matches an intricately-built world with engaging characters and a fascinating plot. In the future, humanity terraforms planets by seeding them with biocyph (biology technology) pods called BRATs. This tech absorbs data from the existing ecosystem, then engineers and releases viruses which mutate the original life forms at the DNA level, with the ultimate goal of turning the planet into something as Earth-like as possible. BRATs and their tech belong to the Crib, an interstellar government, which extorts regular fees from BRAT-seeded planets to maintain programming, lest the software crash and the planet turn to a mush of biomass.
Edie Sha’nim also belongs to the Crib, to whom she is indentured in return for her biocyph education. She’s the best there is at biocyph – a 20% success rate on BRATs is considered outstanding, but Edie has never failed once. Even indentured, Edie has a great deal of freedom compared to Finn, a prisoner of war turned ‘serf’, a slave leashed by a chip in his head which will explode if he travels outside his work area. When pirates abduct Edie, Finn assists them because he hopes Edie can deactivate his bomb. The pirates take Edie to a planet where they believe spare tech is lying around to be hacked at great profit. Finn is forced to be Edie’s bodyguard by the fact that the pirates reprogramme his chip to link it to hers so if she dies, he dies, and his chip’s new detonation rule is ‘don’t get too far from Edie’. All this, before they even get to the planet Scarabaeus, where things are not at all what anybody expects.
The plot and worldbuilding are terrific here, clearly, and the setting is also a critical part of the way the characters live and interact. Edie interacts with tech by means of a physical interface and experiences the programming in sensory ways, like visual layers or music, and you can clearly understand why someone might be a ‘natural’ in a field that you otherwise expect to be dominated by training. Finn is an ex-soldier whose fighting skills and knack for survival are a mismatch with Evie’s empathy, which often leads her to want to preserve life and limit suffering at her own risk. Edie and Finn’s chip connection gives Edie the ability to trigger a pain reaction in Finn, a power which undercuts her attempts to get Finn to trust her.
The author lets both plot and characterization unfold slowly. I’ve read so many heroes and heroines who tell everything imaginable to a fellow protagonist they’ve just met and then think something like ‘He didn’t know why he was telling her this. There was just something about her that made him open up with secrets he’d carried for decades.’ Insta-intimacy! (Instamacy?). So it’s a relief here to see a slow build in the connection between Edie and Finn, especially given that they must overcome technological obstacles as well as emotional and physical ones.
What’s weak? While I understand that not all romances, let alone all sci-fi ones, need on-page sensuality, the author does so much to establish touch and proximity as elements in Edie and Finn’s relationship that it feels weird to pull back to ‘subtle’ when sex actually occurs. It felt like we had been prepped for warm. By contrast, fight and action choreography is overly narrated. Eco-rads, or people who murder biocyph programmers to prevent planet seeding, are a peripheral thread that doesn’t fully play out. By the end of the second book, so many surrounding characters have died around Edie and Finn that their survival starts to feel a bit eyebrow-raising, especially because survival is generally based on chance (i.e who happened to be standing in the front when X happens) rather than on any skills possessed by the two of them.
And yes, I said book two. I decided to review Song of Scarabaeus and Children of Scarabaeus as a duo here because they are essentially one overarching story spread across two books. I downloaded Children within minutes of finishing Song because the ending of Song felt like an abrupt stop. Fortunately, they flow together nicely. What works and doesn’t is consistent across both books, so the review applies to both. I was thoroughly satisfied with the well-earned HEA at the end of Children.
One of you recommended this book to me in a comments thread about Sci-fi romance, and I’m very grateful you did, because it was a terrific pickup. Hopefully this review will pay it forward and convince another new reader to give this duo a try.