"You may be the most deviously disturbed individual I have ever met, Mr. Wang. It's an honor to know you." - Mr. von Ickles to Ishmael Wang in Full Share
Whenever the narrator of a story relates a compliment like that one, be on your guard. But, trust Lois. Or so the aforementioned narrator counsels us. As such.
Last year I deeply enjoyed the all but incident-free Half Share, the second in Nathan Lowell's Traders' Tale series, a novel full of lovely character moments and quiet pleasures, at least from its narrator and protagonist's, junior spaceman Ishmael Wang's, point of view. His meteoric rise through the ranks aboard the Lois McKendrick, an interstellar trading vessel, is told in an overly modest "aw shucks" style that makes Ish seem almost too good to be true, but I, a fan of unreliable narrators in the William Faulkner/Gene Wolfe vein, suspect the story would sound very, very different from other characters' perspectives, yes I do.
Full Share continues recounting this rise, approaches the mid-point in this series, and is thus its first true pivot: stuff happens and choices have to be made and there is actual drama. In other words, this could have been the book where the series went all wrong -- it has been perfectly enjoyable up to now, in its sweet, intimate, ordinary way -- but Lowell is a better writer than that, thank goodness, and Lois' first real crisis since Ish joined the crew is deftly handled and dramatic, its consequences vivid and plausible, except, of course, Ish's part in it, because he has an agenda as a narrator that I haven't entirely teased out yet and don't entirely trust.
Which is always fun.
Despite that early bit of big-time physical jeopardy, though, the tension isn't where one usually expects it in a full on interstellar-traveling, space station- and planet-visiting bit of science fiction. It's Ish's fate that is the mystery when crew-shuffling orders from the higher-ups -- the Lois McKendrick is part of a commercial freighter fleet, after all -- leave him scrambling around like a kid at musical chairs when the music has stopped. Unlike in musical chairs, though, his fellow players want to keep him. And so, it seems, does the ship.
A quasi-mystical undercurrent has long been at play in these books. Ish catches himself occasionally murmuring that well-known mantra** "Trust Lois" and thinking of the ship as a conscious entity with a purpose and a plan, and then there are the "whelkies," handicrafts from one of the worlds Ish and his friends have visited, pocket-sized statuettes of wood and strange stones that are believed to have shamanic properties, subtle but powerful things that many of Ish's fellow travelers and traders are glad to have with them in the Deep Dark.
And of course, like its predecessors, this is not a book to read on an empty stomach. Ish started out, in Quarter Share, working in the kitchens and teaching Cookie, in loving detail*, how to brew up a proper urn of coffee, and while he may no longer be a food service coolie, he still tells us all about his meals, the biscuits, the omelets, the lamb. In space, no one can hear your stomach growl, because it's never empty, apparently.
Where this book stands out from its admittedly still-exceptional predecessors is in its underlying mystery. The crisis that served as the dramatic focus for the novel's first act is not what it seemed, and while Ish would (as usual) have us believe it's all down to his ingenuity and skill to tease out what really happened when the excrement hit the air circulation systems (and Ish started out this novel as a mid-spec Environmental, didn't he?), whether or not that's the truth doesn't in any way affect the inherent interest of figuring out what did happen, why, and to benefit whom, if anyone. Nor is that crisis the only bit of skullduggery going on among Lois's crew. No, no.
But this isn't an ordinary space opera, where the author is pushing the drama button at intervals; this is a story of ordinary joes and janes making an ordinary living between the stars. And what charming joes and janes they are, even if sometimes the reader does want to roll his or her eyes at the charm and the intense camaraderie and the barely contained lust they express for one another. Ish isn't a kid anymore. Nobody is.
And I think I'm going to miss Lois more than he will.
*I still quite vividly remember Patrick McLean reading aloud from that passage at the Ridan Publishing party at Balticon and then bellowing that it was coffee porn.
**Well-known among Lowell's fans, at least.