I'm not normally a fan of space epics, nor military fiction. It was therefore with some hesitancy that I began reading Steve Umstead's first novel, Gabriel's Redemption. (Available here.)
My reluctance was unfounded, and I discovered that pretty much right from page 1. Umstead has created here a tight, self-consistent universe -- the story, set in the year 2179, comes complete with a history of the previous 170-some-odd years. The background and historical events weave themselves seamlessly into the plot, and he thus avoids the pitfall that traps a lot of writers in this genre -- the need to have someone around asking clumsy questions so that the relevant parts of the backstory can come out. Everything we need to know -- the colonization of Mars, discovery of wormholes (and their subsequent use in space travel), the Shanghai meteorite collision -- comes up naturally, and as we learn about the history, we move nicely in the present.
The story itself revolves around the disgraced military officer Evan Gabriel, who has been given a one-time-only-special-offer to redeem himself by breaking up an illicit drug ring on another planet. To give away any more of the plot details would be unforgivable, so I will only say that if you think that this story is going to be a tidy, straight-line journey from point A to point B, you are mistaken. As someone who considers himself a specialist in plot twists, I have to doff my hat to Umstead for catching me completely off guard not once, nor twice, but three times.
My only criticism of Gabriel's Redemption is pacing -- it moves really quickly. I wanted to know the characters more deeply than I did by the end. You spend the majority of the story in Gabriel's head, which is fine, but I wanted to find out more about the other crew members -- learn some of their quirks, watch them interact, hear them talking about matters other than plot points. There was some of that, but only teasers -- we find out that St. Laurent wants to quit the military after this mission and run a vineyard, that Takahashi gets terrible motion sickness, that Jimenez plays the guitar. A little more time in developing these characters would have made us even more invested in their survival, and the success of their mission.
Even so, I really enjoyed this book. If you are a fan of military science fiction, you should definitely put it on your list. If not -- give it a look anyhow. It's a quick, fast-paced, and engaging read, and a hell of a first novel from an author we're sure to hear more about.