5 December, 2021

LitStack Review – Linesman by S. K. Dunstall

S. K. Dunstall*
Ace Books
Release Date:  June 30, 2015
ISBN 978-0-425-27952-6

In S. K. Dunstall’s new science fiction novel, “linesmen” are rock stars.  The men and women talented enough to be part of the Linesmen’s Guild have an inborn ability, identified at a young age and honed over years of training, to work with the lines of energy that regulate the inner workings of the ships that transverse space.  They alone can work with lines that are broken or out of sync, they alone can straighten tangled lines.  They are the celebrity mechanics of the mysterious energies that make space travel possible.

There are ten known lines, gleaned from enigmatic alien technology, each with their own specific purpose (although some remain a mystery):  Line One oversees the well-being of the crew, Lines Two and Three regulate smaller mechanics, Line Four controls gravity.  Line Five is tasked with communications and Line Six works with the powerful Bose engines of larger ships.  Line Nine allows ships to jump into the void, and Line Ten manages movement within the void, allowing for interstellar travel.

Not all linesmen can work with every line; the reach of the linesmen is dependent on their skill.  They attain their rank dependent on how high they can interact with the lines.  Tens are rare, and afforded immediate respect and even deference.  They know their worth, and tend to be somewhat contemptuous of all others; not just linesmen who rank below them but the military and civilians as well.  Their contracts are highly sought by the most powerful of cartels, for the cartel with the most tens controls travel between worlds, and therefore holds the greatest influence and exerts the most political power.

And then there is Ean Lambert.  Ean is a ten, certified by the Grand Master himself.  But Ean is unlike any other linesman, in that he is almost completely self-taught.  Not only that, but he’s a slum dog from the underguts of Lancia, with no pedigree and no mentor; only dogged determination kept him from being dropped from training on any given day.  And he’s the only linesman who sings to the lines rather than trying to push them with his mind.  His trainers told him that singing was a bad habit learned when he was young, but Ean knows better.  He does not simply feel the lines in his mind, he can feel them in his heart.  They are not merely lines of energy to him; they are full of emotion, and through his singing he can not only manipulate them, but communicate with them.  Of course, he doesn’t tell anyone about that.  He doesn’t want to get laughed out of the Linesmen’s Guild, or have his sanity questioned.

Ean is also the only ten of the lowly but ambitious Rigel Cartel, and he’s the only ten who’s still planetside.  All of the other upper level linesmen have been recruited out to the mysterious “confluence” – an ambiguous sphere of power in space discovered six months ago.  No one knows exactly what the convergence is:  some say a ball of energy vibrating on the same wavelength of the known lines, or the void protruding into real space, but as the cartels have moved all their tens there, rumors are that the confluence is some kind of ship or weapon, for aren’t lines exclusive to ship design?  Regardless, any linesman of any repute – except for Ean – is out at the convergence, and they speak of it in almost reverential tones, even if they cannot explain exactly what it is.

Ean would dearly love to venture out to the confluence, but Rigel wants him at the port of Ashery where his work can pull in huge profits, since he’s the only ten available to work on ailing ships tasked with taking cargo through the void.  He does good work, too, so although he may not have a reputation as a guild star, he does have a good reputation with the tradesmen and military transports who couldn’t care less about the thrall of the confluence.

But then one day a member of the Lancastrian nobility pays Ean’s boss a personal visit looking for vengeance for a business deal gone sour (Rigel has a bit of a reputation for shady deals), and she ends up not only purchasing Ean’s services, but buying out his contract as well, spiriting him off to a custom built freighter full of VIPs from every walk of life.  It turns out that his new employer is Lady Lyan, Emperor Yu’s eldest daughter, and the ship is carrying a glittering myriad of delegates to her wedding which, according to public opinion, will never actually happen.  But there are also rumors swirling that the wedding “party” is merely a well timed cover for an even larger mission… and now poor Ean is right in the middle of something even bigger than the confluence; something he is ill prepared for, but for which his skills may prove invaluable.

Actually, the best thing about Linesman is Ean.  He truly is a compelling character.  I was unsure if his fish-out-of-water vibe was due to his mean upbringing, his empathy towards the lines, or if perhaps he was afflicted with something akin to autism.  When he is in his element – working with the lines – he is almost a savant despite the fact that it takes a huge toll on him, both physically and emotionally.  But at other times, with people, he is easily confused and ill at ease.  He can hold his own in social situations when he knows what to expect, but they still often cause him great doubt and discomfort.  His refuge is the “fresher” (think: shower), something he didn’t have as a child and only stringent access to later in life; on the royal freighter he glorifies in being able to take frequent showers in his own private quarters, sometimes two or three a day, whenever he feels stressed or unclean.  After particularly grueling experiences, he will isolate himself there, sitting on the floor of the tiny room with his knees pressed up to his chin, letting the water go through its cycle.

Oh, and how he sings to the lines!  He alone appears able to tap into the sentience of the ships around him (although ship captains also show a great affinity for their charges), and the joy that shared knowledge gives him, and the great responsibility he bears towards them, is not only endearing, but is a uniquely exciting perspective.  There are many other characters in Linesman that distinguish themselves, but Ean truly soars.

The story itself is somewhat vague and the writing can be confusing, especially with a lack of clarity concerning antecedent pronouns, but where the story shines – in the characters, especially Ean, and in its dynamic of emotionally sentient technology – it shines brilliantly.  Apparently, Linesman is first in a potential series; I look forward to following Linesman Lambert in any further adventures he may have.

~ Sharon Browning

* S. K. Dunstall is the pen name for sisters Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall

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