Dark Horse by Michelle Diener

Dark Horse by Michelle Diener(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Some secrets carry the weight of the world.

Rose McKenzie may be far from Earth with no way back, but she’s made a powerful ally–a fellow prisoner with whom she’s formed a strong bond. Sazo’s an artificial intelligence. He’s saved her from captivity and torture, but he’s also put her in the middle of a conflict, leaving Rose with her loyalties divided.

Captain Dav Jallan doesn’t know why he and his crew have stumbled across an almost legendary Class 5 battleship, but he’s not going to complain. The only problem is, all its crew are dead, all except for one strange, new alien being.

She calls herself Rose. She seems small and harmless, but less and less about her story is adding up, and Dav has a bad feeling his crew, and maybe even the four planets, are in jeopardy. The Class 5’s owners, the Tecran, look set to start a war to get it back and Dav suspects Rose isn’t the only alien being who survived what happened on the Class 5. And whatever else is out there is playing its own games.

In this race for the truth, he’s going to have to go against his leaders and trust the dark horse.

[Full disclosure: I received and accepted a NetGalley invitation from the author to receive a free ebook in exchange for an honest review.]

I was introduced to Michelle Diener’s work through her debut fantasy novel, The Golden Apple.  After that, I delved into her historical series about John Parker and Susanna Horenbout (set in Tudor times).  So when she emailed me saying that she had expanded into science fiction I was very excited to read her new book.  It took me much longer than anticipated to get to it, but in the end it was worth it.

Dark Horse starts out with our protagonist, Rose, escaping from the alien ship that has held her captive and tortured her for about three months.  The Tecrans that hold her hostage are more advanced than humanity but Rose has escaped by making a promise with the rogue artificial intelligence system, Sazo.  Sazo teleported the Class 5 Battleship into the middle of Grih territory.  The Grih are an alien race the closest to humans and therefore the most likely to accept Rose into their society when they inevitably find her.  But despite Sazo’s help in getting her out, Rose really isn’t sure of the artificial intelligence system’s true motivations and whether or not he plans to harm or help the Grih.  Sazo’s actions in getting her out of the ship really make her doubt that.

Rose is a great main character.  We don’t get to experience all of the horrible things she went through when the Tecran experimented on her but we certainly feel the repercussions throughout the novel.  You don’t walk away from three months of torture completely unscathed.  At the same time, Rose is full of hope that she can build a new life for herself among the Grih, particularly once she meets them.  Her attraction to Dav, the admiral in charge of the ship that found her is undeniable but at the same time she’s still keeping Sazo’s existence a secret.  It’s a dangerous secret that threatens to wreck all that she has worked for and possibly start an inter-galactic war.  Throughout the novel you really get the feeling that Rose is a fundamentally good human being who was in a terrible situation and is now willing to do almost anything it takes to get out of it with her honour and dignity intact.  It’s certainly not easy.

Not only is Rose a three dimensional character, Dav is as well.  He’s an admiral who has followed the book to the letter from about day one to get where he is in his career currently.  But that all seems to change once he meets Rose and is exposed to entirely new ideas, ideas that really threaten views he once thought were set in stone.  Yes, there’s an attraction between the two of them but it really feels organic and Michelle Diener allows that attraction to grow throughout the novel.  It’s far from straightforward either—there are plenty of bumps along the road as he discovers Rose isn’t being entirely truthful with him and the secret she keeps may ruin the tentuous peace between the five main races in the galaxy.

I could go on and on about the character of Sazo, the artificial intelligence, but to do so would spoil some of the lovely surprises Michelle Diener leaves for her readers.  Suffice it to say, Sazo’s and Rose’s banter makes for some of the best parts of the entire book.  And considering the quality of Dark Horse, that’s pretty high praise.  Even the secondary characters are very well fleshed out, something that I’ve found is very consistent with Diener’s novels, fantasy, historical fiction or otherwise.

I really did love the world-building in Dark Horse.  Some of the technology was so creative, some of it was similar to other science fiction novels and a few things will be very familiar to avid science fiction fans.   (Rose even makes a joke about this when asked how she can possibly figure out the Grih technology so fast.)  What I really liked, however, was the cultural aspect of the world-building.  Considering the fast pace of the novel we don’t exactly get an in-depth look at Grih culture but we do get beautiful glimpses into it.  For example, the scarcity of music-makers due to not only the Grih language but their anatomy.  It’s all very fascinating and very well thought out.

Best of all, Dark Horse starts out pretty fast paced and maintains that pace quite well throughout the novel.  There are some ‘down’ moments but the tension never really leaves, especially when you consider that Rose’s secret is really a ticking time bomb that could have disastrous consequences.  I can’t talk too much about the plot because that would spoil some of the twists and turns, but I think it’s enough to say that you’ll definitely be (pleasantly) surprised with said plot twists.  They’re logical and exciting at the same time.

Basically, Dark Horse is an amazing science fiction debut for Michelle Diener and I personally can’t wait for more, preferably in the same universe (if not the same characters).  I can’t recommend this novel enough.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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