This is the first novel in a space opera trilogy by a pair of rising Australian SF stars, and brought to the US by those accommodating folks at Ace. Though it's hardly an exemplar of originality, it works well as an actioner, with a backstory that's been laid out with impressive complexity. But the story itself — with some exceptions — is basically a handsomely-mounted collection of clichés, right down to its characters. Indeed, the book's opening sequence wastes no time in reminding you of Star Wars, and its protagonist, intelligence officer Morgan Roche, is a die-cast Tough Female Heroine with little to distinguish her from a thousand such characters in contemporary SF. The Prodigal Sun makes for an agreeable reading experience, but not one that will blow you away.
Evergence is set over forty thousand years in the future, at a time when the human race has expanded throughout almost the entire Milky Way galaxy, with speciation having taken place among these various groups of humans. Among these many evolved groups, the Pristine Caste most closely resemble human beings of today's Earth, although all knowledge of Earth itself seems to have been lost. As the story opens, most of the galaxy is under the rule of the declining Commonwealth of Empires. The Dato Bloc, made up of the remnants of an ancient and harsh theocracy, have already seceded from the COE and are poised to make trouble.
Morgan Roche is a Commonwealth intelligence officer assigned to the ostensibly menial task of escorting the aforementioned Box, an AI, to the penal colony on Sciacca's World. When the military vessel she is on is ambushed by Dato Bloc fighters who are after the Box, she escapes to the planet's surface with the aid of a mysterious fellow named Cane, who was picked up floating in space in some kind of pod and has no memory of his past. (So it's as plain as the nose on your face he will become a character of Major Significance very soon.) Together with two convicts on their way to the penal colony, one of whom is a little girl belonging to the psychically powerful Surin race, they fall in with a group of rebel fighters in an abandoned town. The Box thinks that someone on the prison planet has sold them out to the Dato Bloc. But who? why? how? etc...
From the start I had a hard time believing Evergence's future history. Despite the far, far, far future setting, Williams and Dix depict a culture and technology barely beyond old-school pulp sci-fi. And yet, except for perhaps the issue of speciation, the authors don't adequately explore why nothing is any more advanced than it is. Newer scientific concepts like nanotech are barely touched upon, and AI is still in a very crude stage of development (the extremely advanced state of the Box is why the Dato Bloc want it so badly).
Instead, everyone flies around space Doc Smith-style in the same old rickety spaceships, and exciting dogfights among swift, tiny fighters erupt within dangerous asteroid belts. Warriors do battle in powered armor left over from Starship Troopers and fire trusty old-fashioned projectile and laser guns at each other. Stalwart rebels scurry around dusty, windswept planets, fighting the good fight against avaricious, inhumane corporate monoliths. And the Box is just another SF computer that talks to you and fills in plot holes. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.
Williams and Dix, though, keep the pace up for the most part, and battle scenes are well done. Also, the authors compensate for the clichéd and uninteresting personality of their heroine by imbuing their supporting cast with sympathetic qualities. The Surin girl, Maii, is particularly well realized. Though she is never foregrounded in the action, she plays a pivotal role, and the history the authors give her is harrowing and gut-wrenching. Cane, too, is an intriguing fellow; though his function in the story is often telegraphed, Williams and Dix still succeed in making him enigmatic enough to sustain your curiosity. The book's most dramatic scenes come in its second half, after Roche and Cane have met with the rebels (and there's one kickass combat scene in Chapter 16). But even the best scenes are sandwiched between talk, talk, and talk. And the finale commits one of the worst of all possible sins: the story climaxes with a big "explaino," where the authors wrap up loose ends simply by having one character explain to all of the others what's been going on.
One area in which Williams and Dix do score high marks is in the way they handle human speciation believably. There's a ton of room to expand and develop this that I hope they take advantage of.
If all you're looking for is a pretty good space opera page-turner...well, yeah, you could do better than this first Evergence entry. But you could unquestionably do a hell of a lot worse, too. And this wouldn't be the first trilogy in all of SF to start out hackneyed but leave a lot of room to improve when the authors hit their stride. There is enough promise here for me to give this import the benefit of the doubt. Followed by The Dying Light.