I was fully prepared not to like Within a Sheltering Darkness. The cover had that dubious computer-generated look, the title was vaguely embarrassing, and the first two chapters gave every indication that this would be a self-satisfied yawner. But damned if it didn’t turn out to be an interesting read!
Alex Boten is an astronaut, or anyway he wants to be, but he narrowly failed the tests that would have allowed him to become a mission pilot. Instead, he’s called upon to field-test a prototype spaceship, which malfunctions spectacularly on what appears to be a routine maneuver, and blam, he’s really, really far out into space. When he comes to, he’s orbiting an Earth-like planet with a great view of the Milky Way, Mirrus, which rotates in such a way that half the planet lives in perpetual darkness, the other part in perpetual daylight.
The novel has a hodge-podge organization that may have doomed it from the start with traditional publishers. The first part, which was by far my favorite, is a Dracula-esque compilation of letters, ship’s logs, invoices, and diaries that follow the development of a possibly doomed exploration past the edges of the known world. The analogy is to Christopher Columbus, one must assume, and it’s quite well done. Havorka thinks past the basics and delves into the minds of the anxious but determined explorers, examining how religious faith can both spur and limit scientific development.
The second and third parts have a heavier religious bent, as Boten discovers that he and his ship have fulfilled several of the prophesies contained in the Mirrans’ major religious work, and struggles with what this means both for himself and for the strangely innocent world that he may have been brought to by more than just chance.
As an author, Alan Havorka has the kind of clear, confident style that takes you right past the “self-published” designation and makes your brain say “Ah yes, this is a Real Book.” With the caveat that you need to just ignore the first two chapters, which are pretty irrelevant and seem determined to make use of every formatting option known to Word. My only major editorial issue was the use of the dreaded double-space after periods that is used throughout the book. Authors: Don’t do this, it makes your pages look like they have holes in them.
On the whole, the author has planned this book out, and his words feel well-weighed and carefully crafted. World-building is kept to the necessities, and the pacing is even and fairly quick. These are all things that I really like to see in these books—they give me the sense that the author had his readers in mind as he wrote, which can be a rare find in a field where many writers are putting out books as much for their own satisfaction as for the benefit of their audience.
Lovers of the Age of Exploration should get a kick out of this, as should fans of Christian parable. Even as a member of neither of these groups, I quite enjoyed this imaginative and thinky novel, and wouldn’t mind seeing more of Mirrus and its people in later books.