Review: The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher

The Burning Dark by Adam Christopher | Tor Books, 2014

Before reading this review you should all understand that one of my favorite movies is Event Horizon. For those who aren’t familiar, Event Horizon, is essentially a haunted house story set in space wherein an intrepid group of spacers investigate the titular ship, the Event Horizon, which years ago mysteriously disappeared during the test of the first FTL drive. Event Horizon isn’t a great movie but much like Alien it combines science fiction and horror in a fun and entertaining manner (see also: PandorumEden Log, and Europa Report). As such the blending of science fiction and horror has always been one of my favorite areas of genre fiction (I do less well with video games, I’m looking at you Dead Space). I say all this to warn you that my look at Adam Christopher’s The Burning Dark is not going to be through a completely objective lens.

 

The Burning Dark opens with a fairly enigmatic prologue. It is vague but hints at someone or something trapped outside the bounds of our universe trapped but still brimming with malevolent intellect. The prologue definitely sets the tone for the novel and clearly shows, right out the gate, that nothing is quite as it seems. From there readers are introduced to the heroic actions of one Captain Abraham Idaho Cleveland as he desperately uses every trick in the book to save a planet from a horrific invasion by an armada of marauding spider-like machine aliens. It is strange then that no long after this battle the seemingly heroic Captain Cleveland finds himself into a forced retirement and sent to oversee the backwater U-star (a space station), Coast City, monitoring the strange star system known as Shadow. Mostly empty, Cleveland finds himself shuffled off into an unused section of the station and left to his own devices while the crew completes its shutdown. Bored, Cleveland constructs a space radio out of spare parts (a hobby he had in his youth) and it isn’t long before he is receiving a strange signal on a subspace band that he isn’t legally supposed to be listening on. Meanwhile, the strange light of Shadow seems to wreak havoc on the sensors and powers Coast City’s systems and its crew while strange whispers and mysterious sight begin to increasingly haunt the station.

There is element of predictability to the The Burning Dark that is sort of endemic to the haunted house theme: lights flicker, people disappear, and strange voices are heard. As a reader familiar with horror you sort of know how things will go and many of the elements that Christopher introduces are a bit obvious. I can’t fault an author working in an established medium for using familiar tropes and Christopher manages to infuse those tropes with a unique style and flavor that definitely makes them stand out.  I particularly enjoyed Christopher’s use of real-world Cold War era conspiracy theory by playing upon, and extrapolating a lot more detail from this supposed recording made by Judica-Cordiglia brothers in 1961 of a (supposed) Russian cosmonaut. Christopher futher works elements of Japanese folklore into his story thus managing to create a fascinating pastiche of the historical, the supernatural, the scientific and the horrific.

While The Burning Dark is a self-contained story Christopher does a commendable job of placing the story within a larger universe. While, primarily focused on the trials and tribulations of the characters aboard the Coast City the events described in the novel are tied to events outside of Shadow in a rather clever manner. Indeed, the universe of The Burning Dark is an interesting one and one that would be great to be explored in a more traditional space opera. Christopher doesn’t give a lot of background information on the world of The Burning Dark. He lets you extrapolate from name alone just what a psi-marine is without ever fully detailing the nature of a psi-marine’s training. This is both a blessing and a curse as it lets the plot and story flow smoothing while at the same time slightly frustrating readers (like myself) interested in the nitty gritty details so often seen in militaristic space operas. While The Burning Dark is at its heart a ghost story there is a great deal going on in the background that lends a little bit of extra heft to the main story.

I found The Burning Dark an enjoyable read that hit all the right notes to entertain a reader whole enjoys both science fiction and horror;  this is a fun story that reads quickly. The Burning Dark leans hard on the fiction half of science fiction so fans of hard science fiction might be a bit less enamored than I was. Similarly the derivative bits of the horror story might put off readers heavily enmeshed in the world of horror fiction. The Burning Dark tries deftly to navigate the thin line between both horror and science fiction succeeding in some regards and failing in others.  Thankfully, The Burning Dark marks the opening of a new series (The Spider Wars) and introduces a wealth of interesting ideas that I keen to see explored further. The Burning Dark is a real genre bender with a supernova bright cinematic flair that is worth checking out.

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