A review of R. Peter Keith’s swashbuckling space opera

This book’s title gives some of the action away, not that I mind. I grabbed “Wine Dark Deep” because I wanted an avowed deep space retelling of the Odyssey, and you, reader, might want the same. This book is the first installment in what will be a multi-part tale detailing the adventures of the spaceship Ulysses and its crew.

For those wondering where exactly in Homer’s Odyssey we begin, the brave astronauts are not on their way home but rather on their way out to Jupiter, to discover whether and how the planet might be made suitable for human life. In this near-ish version of the future, humans are a multi-planet species. This isn’t exactly a shocking prediction: at some point, Earth is going to run out of space for us.

But beyond the name of the spaceship, it’s hard to see exactly what this story has to do with the Odyssey. The Odyssey, as told by Homer, is dotted with transformations and betrayals. For example, early on, Odysseus outsmarts the bloodthirsty Cyclops by sticking a pole into its one eye. But as his crew sails safely into the horizon, Odysseus can’t resist shouting back to the Cyclops that he, Odysseus, is the architect of the Cyclops’s gory defeat. Poseidon, sea god and the Cyclops’ father, curses Odysseus with the return journey from literal hell. Every fresh upset in the Odyssey challenges and changes Odysseus until he finally returns home to Ithaca a humbler and more cynical man. The journey is as emotional as it is physical.

Cal Scott, who helms the spaceship Ulysses, is no Odysseus. In language that sets a somewhat low bar, he’s described as “capable.” He’s also described as having “wit” but doesn’t really say anything witty at any point, so I’m not sure whether to believe it.

Cal’s spaceship is due to refuel on an asteroid, but a rebellion on the asteroid’s surface means the colonists deny Cal’s crew the much-needed supply. Cal parachutes down to the meet the rebels, and the rest of the briskly-moving plot focuses on Cal’s hijinks to get his desired fuel and get out. The story is less interested in the geopolitical tensions and realities of rebellion in corporatized space than it is in explaining to us exactly how physics operates, often in the form of sentences that read like they were excerpted directly from a scientific abstract. For example: “Because of this, she was actually walking at a right angle to the planetoid’s surface. The artificial gravity created by the centrifuge produced a near earth-normal field.” This attention to scientific detail makes for some interesting world-building: for example, the asteroid is a rich place in part because its nominal atmosphere makes it a lot cheaper to lift resources out of its gravity field than the equivalent lift would be on earth. Sometimes, though, it feels excessive, and appears in places where character development would have been more welcome.

Besides Cal, the most interesting character is his nemesis Helen, a fantastically murderous psychologist whose past history with Cal remains deliciously unclear. I wish she’d had more to do. The book also introduces about a thousand secondary characters, but doesn’t really develop them.

As an introduction to a longer series, this story offers an appetizer version of Keith’s style and approach. I would have liked a little more: who is Cal, really? For example, he wears a wedding band, but he doesn’t once think about his spouse, so we end up not even knowing this person’s name. More characterization would have helped me establish an emotional bond to the characters and their story. As it is, Cal comes off just a little two-dimensional, not a space cowboy but not a fully-fleshed character either. These details will likely emerge in later books, but it makes this one feel a wee bit skimpy, kind of like a filler episode of Star Trek. Still, if you’ve finished The Three Body Problem and The Expanse, this might be a fun next stop on the journey.

Thanks to NetGalley and Uphill Downhill books for providing a promotional version of this book in exchange for an honest review.