A lost ancient civilization and the tomb of a legendary king lie buried beneath centuries of ash on the volcanic planet Thror, but that’s not the only reason sixteen-year-old Carter has tricked her Archaeology of Outer Space class into coming here. Her best friend Conrad has just disappeared on a trip to Thror, leaving behind little more than a broken vintage camera. The strange and disturbing photographs she manages to extract make her suspect Conrad’s disappearance is somehow connected to the hidden tomb of the last king of Thror.
Unfortunately, the ludicrously over-friendly ‘Furry Giants’ who have taken over the planet’s barren surface would rather offer her cheap souvenirs than answers, and the local officials insist they have no record of Conrad’s existence. Inspired by fear for Conrad’s life and the chance to make the greatest archaeological discovery of the century, Carter and her friends follow Conrad’s footsteps deep into the mountains of Thror’s forbidden Black Zone and launch an illicit excavation.
Coded messages, stunning ancient ruins, and clues left by Conrad himself begin to surface as the young archaeologists fall victim to an alarming series of accidents staged by the increasingly hostile Furry Giants. Piecing together a history of dictatorship, terrorism and disguise, Carter glimpses the horrors beyond Thror’s flamboyant façade and startling revelations about the friend she thought she knew. The masks of Thror hide devastating secrets, and the golden tomb buried deep in the frozen core may claim the lives of everyone she loves.
First things first. I love Professor P, and I think we should all aspire to be more like her. She’s caustic, unsentimental and deeply passionate about her work, first and foremost.
“What does this story teach us?”
“Make sure you have someone who wants you?” Allison said tremulously.
“Goodness, no!” Snorted Professor P. “Become a professional and learn to take care of yourself.”
Carter’s relationship with the largely absent Conrad is an interesting one, and it speaks to some very carefully thought-out character work. She ocillates between competing with him for the find of the century (technically, of two centuries), hating him for his cryptic clues and mysterious methods, and being desperately afraid for his wellbeing. I like the fact that they’re friends, with very little indication of any romantic interest, but I think Conrad’s actions do call for perhaps further examination than Carter has the time to give them. I’d like to see a sequel to work out whether their relationship could hold up if they actually spent more than five seconds in the same room.
I loved the incredible detail that Katherine builds into this world of a desolate alien planet. There are cultures upon cultures here, and each one is meticulously built, so it really does feel like Carter, her class of archeology students and their indomitable tutor are genuinely uncovering secrets that have been hidden under the rock and sand for decades. On the other hand, I’m not happy with the idea that the Furry Giant’s harassment of the Human women is explained away as being part of their ‘disguise’ – let alone that the planet’s indigenous women are trapped in an underground well by an accident of biology which makes them less. It speaks to some colonialist stereotypes about indigenous populations that ought to be examined more in order to be justified in the text. The gender aspect is examined, but because of the way the species involved is built, it’s difficult to challenge the existing gender roles in any meaningful way.
Some of the plot developments did seem to rely a little too heavily on Conrad being in the most effective and convenient place at any given time. I’d like to see him make a mistake and it have real consequences, particularly when he requires that Carter – and therefore, everyone else – relies on him with absolute faith, and without all the information. I think the male characters generally could benefit from a lot more attention paid to their actions.
I know, from reading this, that you might be confused that I’m rating it four stars. The simple truth is that I loved the concept, the science, the history, and the speed of a complex plot. I think it was let down by its lack of diversity and by the behaviour of its male characters, but there is a lot to love here. Carter’s stone-cold ambitious streak was something I enjoyed every time it appeared, and it was such a wonderful journey to share with a group of girls who all grow and mature as the book progresses. I have a special soft spot in my heart for Bryanne, shy and awkward Brit, who learns to stand on her own two feet when she’s beyond the influence of her parents’ coddling.
I am absolutely headcanoning Professor P as are/ace, and no-one can take that away from me – though obviously, I’d love for that to be specified in the text. Her hair is frequently referred to as “curly” and “frizzy”, and she has dark eyes – I couldn’t find a reference to her skin colour but I don’t think interpreting her as a woman of colour would challenge the text.
I find it difficult to believe that out of this large cast, none of them are queer – or explicitly non-white. Obviously, I’ve got my own theories going on, but there’s nothing on the page.
There’s a bad reference to bipolar disorder, when it’s used to indicate that a character’s mood is changing frequently: “her capacity for emotional reversal sometimes bordered on the bi-polar.” Not cool, and I’d like to think that this could change in future editions. You can describe mood changes being dizzyingly fast without minimising the impact of actual mental health conditions – I just did it.
I received a digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.