I recently read Alex J. Cavanaugh's debut novel, CassaStar, so I am going to give an honest review. Although Alex is a member of this blog, I was not asked to review the book, and I avoided reading reviews of the novel so I'd have a fresh perspective.
Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game with a young adult protagonist instead of a child and starfighter training instead of zero-gravity drills, and you have the basis of CassaStar. They both are about a tactically brilliant person who feels discredited by his instructor despite being the best there is. From there, the books differ in many respects, and CassaStar has a different edge that makes it unique.
Before I proceed, be warned that this review will contain some spoilers. Ultimately, I recommend the book, but it's not without its flaws. If you plan on buying it and don't want spoilers, stop reading this review and visit http://dancinglemurpress.com/id19.html for the book's blurb. Otherwise, continue at your own risk. Perhaps you'll want to read the book after learning more about it.
Here is the book's trailer:
CassaStar is about a rash young man named Byron who has a record of arrogance. Despite his attitude, he is brilliant and is accepted for pilot training of Cosbolts -- fighters run by two people: pilots and navigators. Byron's teacher is the acclaimed navigator Bassa, whose deceased brother was a hotshot pilot who favors Byron in looks and attitude. Bassa's goal is to make sure Byron and others don't end up dead like his brother.
Throughout most of the story, Byron has very little friends because he is either outdoing the others or he is thought of as inexperienced (after training, he is transferred to pilot alongside officers a lot older and more experienced). The one friend he does have lets him down and he ends up becoming friends with the very person he dislikes. How the plot progresses is well executed, and it throws in new developments at just the right time that I wouldn't have considered but are integral to the story.
The prologue is good, as it shows what kind of action to expect, but the first chapter is the worst one, in my opinion. Chapter 1 has a slow pace compared to the other chapters and gave me very little reason to continue reading. I had no reason to care about the characters, but after getting through the first chapter, the story picks up, and I'm glad I gave it a chance.
The novel is well-structured and flows well. My only issue with the flow of the story is that one chapter ends with a character saying there will be simulator training the next day, yet the next chapter jumps to a real battle without indication, which was confusing for me at first. But overall, the book was easy to understand, engaging and a good read.
What makes the book stand out is that the starfighters called Cosbolts can teleport to other areas in space. This opens up many possibilities and gives the book a different flavor than other books in the same subgenre. I wonder why this fact isn't in the blurb for the book. This is the key element that makes it stand out. Unfortunately, I had little reason to buy the book from just reading the blurb. It's too vague and makes the novel sound like every other book out there when it's not.
Basically, the Cosbolts can make two teleportation jumps back-to-back before it has to recharge. The Cassan people in the book have mental abilities that allow them to telepathically communicate with others and jump their ships via its teleporter. Unfortunately, how they have these powers is not explained. In the story, Byron learns that he can get around the teleportation limit, but Baasa doesn't want other pilots to try to mimic his skills and die. Byron has to keep his ability a secret, which causes some internal conflict, but he gets to use his abilities while undergoing special training with Bassa.
The book spends a lot of time delving into Byron's feelings and his unwillingness to share them with others. At first, there are too much tell-rather-than-show lines about his feelings, but that's fixed later.
Byron and Bassa are the main focus of the story, so they're developed well, but everyone else seems flat (except Byron's first navigator Trindel). It would have been good if the other characters had unique identifying traits to help the reader remember who they are. Also, many of the secondary characters' dialogue lacked uniqueness. They mostly sounded the same with no variety.
Like Ender's Game, in CassaStar, the reader knows very little about the alien enemies. But CassaStar lacks the urgency of training. The conflict between one of the alien races doesn't happen until much later in the book, so instead, the book's conflict initially lies between Byron and his instructor Bassa.
On the downside, the story lacks a strong female presence. If Alex writes a sequel, I hope a female plays a lead role -- perhaps a love interest. But the novel refers to the opposite sex as "mates" for reasons that aren't explained. It makes me wonder whether these people-in-an-undetermined-time-apparently-in-the-future have mates only to reproduce. The closest to "love" in the story are the bonds of friendship, which the novel heavily focuses on.
The story also misses potential ways to use teleportation. If there is a sequel, I would like to see rockets being teleported at enemy starfighters or other unique battle techniques used. In addition, the enemy develops "disrupters" that scramble the teleportation devices and their minds, but I questioned why the enemy would use those instead of just shooting the enemy? If they can hit them with the disrupter, they can hit them with a laser. I was hoping the story explains that the disrupters have faster speed or range or no charge time or something to make it more economically viable, but I don't recall reading an explanation.
Also, the story has a few fist-fighting scenes but they seemed random and out of place without enough tension built up to make them worthwhile. I wish I had more knowledge about the universe as well. You only get the closed-in view of the military, which may have been done so the reader feels isolated like Byron.
The novel has mechanical errors like many big-time books have, but they're forgivable since the book is printed by a small publishing company. The major problem is that on my e-book version, two sentences at the bottom of pages 142 and 212 are cut off and don't continue on the next page. The other noticeable errors are minuscule (e.g., "as" was used instead of "at") and are rare. Overall, though, the book reads well.
A pet peeve of mine is I dislike how the author uses the word "exclaimed" throughout the book, since the characters are obviously exclaiming when there is an exclamation mark at the end of their quotes. Also, there are many instances where simply "said" should be used rather than flowery words that need to be used sparingly. Fortunately, the story is what is important, and it delivers.
Don't let the downfalls keep you from reading CassaStar -- I really enjoyed the book and recommend it. I've disliked plenty of bestsellers, so liking CassaStar says a lot. He did a great job. The interesting twists, well-structured plot, and its uniqueness outweigh its flaws and kept me reading. The book misses some opportunities to be better, but it's an exciting debut novel, and I look forward to reading more from the author.
The 246-page book can be ordered on Amazon in paperback (click here) or e-book format (click here). It also is available for purchase on Dancing Lemur Press's website: http://dancinglemurpress.com/id19.html.