First Line: Call me Ishmael. Yeah I know, but in this case it’s really my name: Ishmael Horatio Wang.
Quarter Share is the first of six books in the series The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper (it seems to be called Trader Tales more often than not, however). The series was initially developed as episodic podcasts (available free through iTunes) before being offered in print through Ridan Publishing. All 6 books are available as podcasts, but only the first 4 seem to be out in print/ebook.
A quick synopsis before I get to the guts of Quarter Share:
Ishmael is a teenager living on a corporate-owned planet. When his single mother is killed in an accident, he has 90 days to get off-world since he is no longer affiliated with the corporation. Uneducated and broke, he has limited options – join the military or sign on to a trading vessel. He opts for the latter, and the remainder of the story is, essentially, a coming-of-age story as “Ish” acclimates to his new life aboard a cargo spaceship.
There’s a lot to both love and hate about QS.
Lowell has an extremely relaxed style of narrative. QS is very “readable”, and it’s easy to just sink down into. It’s fairly obvious that it is, essentially, a transcription of a series of podcasts, as the narrative has the sense of conversation about it.
Lowell’s writing strength lies in the dialogue, and this is some of the best I’ve seen in any genre. It’s witty and genuine, which likely has deep roots in the podcasts.
Interestingly, I liked the way Lowell incorporated the technology into the world-building rather than go into great detail about how things “work.” His focus was on the lives of a few specific ordinary people, and any long technical passages about how the solar sails or inter-space “jumps” really work would have distracted from that and have a disastrous effect on the overall style of the narrative.
I also appreciate a “slice of life” type SF story. These are ordinary folks doing ordinary things, much like more traditional YA Coming-of-Age stories outside the genre. This is the story of the guys never written about in traditional SF stories. These are the guys with real jobs, whose lives don’t intersect with the Skywalkers, Atreides, or Leeloos we are typically presented. For the most part, I found it interesting to varying degrees.
The “slice of life” has a downside though… there just isn’t much going on. There’s very little conflict that actually seems to matter in the long run. All told, it very much feels like an introduction to the rest of the series. Because there’s no real conflict, there’s no tension and no real resolution. The big “questions” that get raised don’t really get answered, and the story even ends in the moments before the biggest question of all is finally addressed.
The basic characterizations are rather cliche and sterile. Everyone is a decent guy or gal, there are no arguments or disagreements. Everyone is always willing to help each other out. Everyone is basically happy and content with their station. There’s no jealousy or envy. It’s a little piece of utopia with no significant skeletons in any closets. It’s boring. I found myself getting tired of actually liking everyone in the book.
Character development is nearly non-existent, especially with the protagonist Ishmael. Relationships are only partially forged, especially male-female, with no progression in any direction. I’ve seen the series referred to as “character driven,” but I couldn’t disagree more. Character-driven stories focus on the development of at least a single character – a progression and a change (or a conscious decision to not change) must occur. That simply doesn’t happen with any of the characters in QS.
Whoever did the transcription, proofreading, and editing should be fired. From a cannon. Twice, if possible. Horrible, horrible horrible. Confusing “then” and “than”? Seriously? Had this been turned in to me by a student I would have handed it back to him/her by the end of the 20th page and told them to proofread it again. The publisher should be both ashamed and embarrassed to have released a title in such a state. Unforgivable.
The absence of physical intimacy between crew members who share showers, saunas, and berthing units is a horrible oversight. If this is, indeed, a coming-of-age story, then the omission of tension resulting from being thrust from living with your single mother into this environment is a character-breaker for me. I don’t care how mature our teenaged protagonist is, he is a teenager! The distinct and admitted absence of perhaps the most basic of identifiable human traits reads as terribly false, and overall characterization and situational believability suffer dramatically as a result. I don’t need (or want, for that matter) to read about characters cooped up on a ship for weeks and months at a time having sex on every tenth page, but it absolutely cannot be dismissed as unimportant.
The End Result
For some strange reason, even through The Bad and The Fugly stuff, The Good stuff saves this book from being a complete waste of time. It’s still a mediocre read at best, and one that I wouldn’t recommend to a young adult (which is, I believe, the ultimate target audience) due to it’s lack of depth, activity, and conflict, but the narrative style makes it an enjoyable and quick read – what my mom would call a “mindless beach book”. It doesn’t make up for The Bad, mind you, but it certainly makes it easier to overlook. The Fugly, however, brought everything crashing down for me. I simply could not get past these flaws.
Will I continue on with the series? Maybe. This came recommended by a couple friends (who couldn’t figure out why they “like[d] such a bad book” and wanted my opinion), and they say my major complaints are addressed in subsequent books. So we’ll see. I might pick up the next book (Half Share) and give it a go, or I might not. As I always say… Life’s too short to read bad books. QS isn’t quite a bad book, in my view, but it’s awfully close.