The Baba Yaga by Una McCormack and Eric Brown is the third novel in the Weird Space series. A standalone space adventure, The Baba Yaga tells the story of an ex-intelligence analyst, Delia Walker, and her quest for peace in a war torn galaxy. This review was written in anticipation of The Baba Yaga‘s follow-up novel, The Star of the Sea (10/25/2016).
The inner worlds – part of an empire named the Expansion – are threatened by an inhuman alien scourge known as the Weird. In the wake of several attacks on border planets by a superior foe, the Expansion’s fleet intelligence is forced to decide between a fruitless campaign of war or an attempt to make peace with an incommunicable race of horrors. Situations become tense when the heavily populated Braun’s World is attacked. Brutal decisions are made and the fate of all of the Expansion will be reshaped by the events that follow.
Senior analyst Delia Walker, already on unstable ground due to her desire to see peace between the warring races, discovers that she’s pregnant. Through an act of betrayal, her pregnancy is revealed to her higher ups and she’s summarily removed from the intelligence service. Without a purpose, the middle aged ex-spook decides to follow rumors of a world of co-existence between the Weird and humans.
On-board the dilapidated Baba Yaga, Walker seeks to prove her beliefs and undertake a mission that may change everything. Walker’s journey will take her through the lawless frontier of space known as Satan’s Reach.
Walker’s story is action packed and never slows down, unfolding more like a space adventure than a traditional space opera. It also features some interesting secondary characters such as the young mother, Maria, with her small daughter Jenny, and the elusive ex-slave smuggling priest Hayes. Expect plenty of twists along the way, including a run in with a mind controlling pimp and other deadly Reach sociopaths.
The locations and character descriptions are all well written and serve to immerse the reader in the Weird Space universe. The smog laden descriptions of the mining planet of Shard’s World and the Christian reliquaries in a strange church on Shuloma Station are just some of interesting places you’ll encounter. McCormack and Brown paint a compelling picture of Satan’s Reach and the Expansion.
Unfortunately The Baba Yaga rarely tackles larger issues it brings up and its characters fail to think critically about the world around them. The reason for their apathy is justified: the characters seem to be designed to embody the lawless and morally gray setting in which they exist. While this makes for a dark story, I couldn’t help but think that many of the characters lacked depth.
Walker’s personal growth develops as the story unfolds in a predicable way. Her maternal instincts – central to the plot of The Baba Yaga – seem forced and not very complex. Rarely does she reflect on her past. Still, with a personality that many of the characters find disagreeable, Walker fits the setting and story well.
The formula falls apart with some of the secondary characters. The Gollum-like Failt is the story’s token Vetch, a race of Cthulhu-looking entities you’ll rarely encounter. Repeatedly described as acting like a “dog” with “docile eyes,” I couldn’t help but imagine Failt as idiotic. His purpose is simple: to remind readers of Walker’s newfound motherly qualities. That’s sad because could have been used to tell the reader more about the Vetch.
Mark Kinsella is the only character I really didn’t like. Mark is the ex-lover of Delia Walker. He’s extremely patronizing (the placating “yes sweetheart” sort), generally uncaring, and slow on the uptake (for an intelligence officer). Mark is given no significant depth. His backstory and reasons for being passive aggressive are never fully explored. Kinsella is primarily used as a plot device and as a reminder of the novel’s themes (see below).
Some people’s bodies had never really been their own to dispose of as they wanted. They had always been something to be policed and controlled.
Less obvious themes include sexism, a woman’s control over their own body, and child sanctity. Yershov – an important character – repeatedly calls Walker a “stupid woman” and “fucking bitch.” The Vetch child Failt asks why Walker is on a quest and not with her “famblee,” as if it were common in this cosmos to think of women only in that role. He’s always portrayed in a warm and loving light. An emotionally cold psychiatrist, Larson, expresses her irritation with being called “lady” by Yershov. Even the aforementioned pimp, Springer, lords over his working girl with supernatural dominance.
Incendiary comments and the threat of violence against women are both very real and common in Weird Space #3. Those topics are interesting and I wish the authors explored them in more depth instead of dropping so many off-hand hints.
Walker’s badass personality, her deep maternal feelings (however forced), and her ability to overcome adversity all make her worth getting to know. For all its faults, The Baba Yaga is a suspenseful story that’s worth checking out if you’re into space action novels. (Edge 3.4/Goodreads 3)
9/24 Goodreads Note:
“Better to go peacefully, rather than rage against the dying of the light. That way you might last a little longer.” (p. 171)
Nice Dylan Thomas reference to “Do not go gentle into that good night.” (Botteghe Oscure, 1951)
Thank you to Rebellion for granting me access to the ARC of Una McCormick’s Star of the Sea (Weird Space #4).