In Scott Cleveland's debut novel, Pale Boundaries, Terson Reilly and his wife, Virene, are out boating when they witness a spacecraft crash into the sea. They speed over to the crash site to affect a rescue of the crew. Normally, such heroic behavior would be praised or even rewarded, but neither the government nor the owners of the spacecraft are pleased with them.
First off, the spacecraft that crashed had cargo belonging to an interplanetary crime family. They fear that Terson and Virene may have discovered incriminating evidence about them in the wreckage and feel obligated to eliminate the couple.
Terson is an involuntary immigrant to Nivia, a world with strict environmental and population control laws. On his homeworld of Algran Asta, he was an ex-cop turned helicopter pilot. An accidental run in with the wrong crowd got him booted off the planet and nearly cost him his life.
Having come from a cloudy, high gravity world, Terson's short stature and intolerance to Nivia's ample sunlight make him stick out like a sore thumb. An immigrant with a criminal record isn't exactly welcome on Nivia. Population controls dictate that his presence means one less pregnancy license will be issued. It seems like every knucklehead with a grievance is compelled to take it out on Terson. Not one to walk away from a fight, each altercation lands him behind bars.
As the couple was outside of the sanctioned coastal boundary, the authorities immediately suspected them of being poachers. Considering Terson's criminal record, the authorities doubt the credibility of his story. The one person who believes Terson and Virene is their parole officer and police captain, Maalan Bragg. While he's not blind to the couple's checkered past, he suspects that they're innocent and in over their heads.
Cleveland could've kept to the "wrong place at the wrong time" plot and it would've been fine, but there's even more going on in this story. There are sub-plots involving the crime family's members and its dealings with the government and the natives that if I write any more than this I'll be spoiling it for you. There are so many factions involved, each with its own agenda, that Cleveland must be given credit for tying it all together. It would fall apart in the hands of a less talented writer.
Cleveland also deserves praise for his skill at crafting realistic characters. While Terson is a tough guy and a loner, Cleveland shows how he came to be that way and we don't blame him. When Virene penetrates his hardened exterior, we get to see just how emotionally vulnerable he is. It lends credibility to Terson's ability to survive the physical punishment he endures.
On the other side is Halsor Tennison. He's the local head of the crime family and could very well be a two-dimensional villain. However, Cleveland takes a lesson from David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, and makes Tennsion a human being rather than some run of the mill TV bad guy. When Tennison isn't hunting down Terson, he's dealing with rival factions, both within and without, staying hidden from the part of the government his family doesn't control and his complicated love life. The latter reveals his vulnerabilities. If it weren't for the fact that he's after Terson, you'd be inclined to root for him.
As for the technicals, there are only a handful of typos, half of which occurred in the last fifty pages of the book. The dialogue is spot on and seamlessly blends with the exposition. Cleveland's writing style displays a maturity typically only seen in seasoned veterans. I can't help but wonder why this book wasn't picked up by a major publisher.
My one gripe with Pale Boundaries, and it's a small one, is that it ends unfinished. I realize a series requires individual books to leave the overall story open, but there are too many unresolved issues. While the story has a climax, I didn't recognize it until I started writing this review. It took place 60 pages before the end of the book! While Terson, Tennison and the other characters deal with important matters afterward, the dramatic tension has already abated so the end of the book comes as anti-climactic. Perhaps this extra material could've been saved for the sequel.
My one minor complaint aside, Scott Cleveland has crafted a wonderful, action-packed story with layers of sub-plots to keep readers engrossed from start to finish. His characters, whether good or bad, are all real human beings with the strengths and vulnerabilities that come with the territory. While it's evident that he did his research on the science underlying the story, the sci-fi element is downplayed enough to make Pale Boundaries accessible to readers outside of the genre. I look forward to the sequel.
Pale Boundaries is available in print from Amazon and for the Kindle.