Review: Pauper by Jack McDonald Burnett
Burnett's Girl on the Moon (which I reviewed in March 2016 as Private [Starship] Enterprise) was a tour-de-force of hard science fiction. This novel, while still set in Burnett's wheelhouse (private enterprise funding space exploration, US returning to the moon, first woman on the moon), takes a large step away from hard scifi.
There are two moons orbiting Earth, you see. Luna has been explored, although the final expedition was a while ago. The second moon, Pauper, arrived in Earth's skies shortly after the Fall of Constantinople. Smaller than Luna, it shows clearly as an orb. That kick-started science and global exploration earlier than in our world.
And coincidentally with Pauper's arrival, magic came to Earth.
This alternative Earth boasts a US that does not include the southern Confederation states, the separate nation of Florida, nor the territory of the Lousiana Purchase. Mexico (which includes southern California and the four-corners states) and Texas are slave-holding regimes. The Canadian expanse with the northern half of the continent's west coast and Snake River Plain is occupied by the "First Nations." US citizens need a passport to travel to Texas or Florida.
Most politicians are "magikers" because, according to one character, "that's how they can convince people to vote for them." And no astronauts are. The reason is complex: there had been a theory that Luna was the source of magic, but that "disturbing" it by setting foot on Luna's surface would bring magic to an end. That there are still magikers about, after multiple moon-landings, does not negate this theory. Proponents simply point to the decline of magical power in the world since then.
Billionaire Frank Ebersole doesn't believe the Luna-source theory. He thinks Pauper is the source of magic, and to prove it, he puts together a carefully-designed expedition to the smaller moon. His group of "layman astronauts" includes, among others, a woman from the French Midwest L'Empire, an Amerindian US citizen who qualifies to emigrate to Canada, a teenage girl whose family were refugees from the slave-holders in Arizona, and his "bodyman" Garrett.
It also includes, unknown to the others, a magiker whose goal it is to sabotage the mission, lest setting foot on Pauper bring about the feared end to magic.
Ebersole will have to coax, cajole, bully, manipulate and sometimes, outright lie to his crew to bring about his goal. And he may have to extend his efforts to the wider world, because someone in the US government is determined to stop him.
Politics, Garrett thought. Like a food fight without the internal logic.
This was a satisfyingly complex novel, with very human characters. People who have public goals, and private ones that are not always the same. People who are jealous or noble or self-serving, who make mistakes and then struggle mightily to right them again. People who lose or succeed by taking action. People who are petty or generous, methodical or impulsive by turns. And an overall focus on the truly possible, despite the single extra non-science element of the tale.
In short, it was everything I have come to expect from Burnett. That it was a Kindle Scout selection which I nominated, and therefore received a copy for free was an additional benefit.
I would have happily paid full price. Burnett is now on my "buy anything he writes" list.