Gosh, I’m at the point in my life where I really wish we had a better comparison for books featuring older female heroes than The Golden Girls. Nothing against the classic sitcom, but literally the only similarity Assassin’s Orbit has with TGG is that the main characters are feisty older women. That’s definitely a draw for readers like me, but if you’re coming here expecting laughs and feel-good sitcom moments, oh boy, are you in for a surprise.
Which isn’t at all a knock on this book: it’s just that hilarity isn’t what AO is about. Tonally, it feels a lot more like The Expanse, as various players are drawn together to uncover a deadly conspiracy against the backdrop of interplanetary political maneuvering. Our main protagonist is Noo Okoreke, the sixty-ish head of Ileri Station’s premiere security consulting firm. When Saed Tahir, the grandson of her business partner Fathya Shariff, is killed while serving as bodyguard to the Minister of External Trade in the lead up to unity talks with the powerful Commonwealth, Noo and Saed’s sister Fari offer their services to Constabulary Commissioner Nnenna Toiwa in tracking down the clearly well-trained killers. With anti-Commonwealth riots instigated by the One World party a constant concern, the Constabulary is already spread pretty thin, especially since Nnenna has only recently overseen a purge of corrupt officers from within their ranks. Nnenna is too practical to refuse the help, especially since the Shariff Security firm has contacts with valuable information who would prefer to stay well off the Constabulary’s radar.
Noo and Fari’s investigations bring them to the rescue of Meiko Ogawa, a Commonwealth spy currently facing enforced retirement after being burned to both Ileri and Saljuan forces. She’s set on finishing one last task, however, and teams up with Noo and Fari as they chase their common quarry planetside and into certain danger. But greater trouble is brewing on the Station than any of our heroes expect, as a Saljuan destroyer enters Ileri space and the One Worlders make their ultimate play.
There’s a lot going on in this crunchy sci-fi tale of spies and intrigue, and it makes for a wholly engrossing, twisty read. I only wish it hadn’t been so difficult to keep track of all the players. I’m usually pretty good with sprawling casts of characters, but John Appel has a habit of referencing them by either first or last name in different chapters — like I get why he does it, but it’s still pretty confusing, and doesn’t help me learn or feel the characters very well. It also doesn’t help that the names are Okoreke and Ogawa and Okafor, or that separate members of the Tahir family are each referred to as Tahir. It would be easier to differentiate characters if we weren’t jumping from place to place amidst the chaos of running combat and insurrection and betrayal. It’s certainly atmospheric, but I still have no idea when, for example, Maria Zheng was introduced or to which party she’s attached (but I like her and I enjoyed her storyline, so that’s something!)
What AO really does well tho is introduce a believable diversity of characters and cultures in a far-future society where a large cohort of humanity leapt away from Earth in order to escape a devastating plague. The predominant cultures are Nigerian, Indonesian and Brazilian, and it’s so very refreshing to read (especially because my heart squeezed with happiness as a Malaysian whenever Mr Appel included something recognizably Nusantaran in his narrative.) In addition to having older heroines who kick butt and take names, Mr Appel also introduces the very badass Josephine Okafor, a network security specialist who’s been blind from birth. This inclusive representation is flat-out brilliant, and exactly what I want in my contemporary reading.
The ending hints at a sequel, and I’m hoping Mr Appel works out some of the pacing/character introduction kinks in this first novel to present another terrific, if less confusing, story set in this universe. And hopefully by then we’ll have a better comparison than a domestic sitcom for a group of entertaining older action heroines getting things done amidst murder and political intrigue.
Assassin’s Orbit by John Appel was published July 20 2021 by Solaris and is available from all good booksellers, including