Book Review: Grand Central Arena, by Ryk E. Spoor
And for this week’s book review, it’s time for a trip to the Baen Free Library! It’s like the e-book equivalent of the dollar paperback bin. Only, uh, free, I guess. Because sometimes you’re just in the mood for punchy sci-fi with a terrible cover.
Ryk E. Spoor’s Grand Central Arena is, of course, the first in a series. The titular Arena is an … odd place, to say the very least. It’s a scale model of the entire universe, nearly a million kilometers across, constructed by unknown, ancient aliens. Any civilization that discovers faster than light travel soon finds they wind up in the Arena as soon as they try to leave. The Arena in turn hosts thousands of different alien species, who resolve their various disputes through formalized challenges, often taking the form of ritualized combat.
And then humanity shows up. A ragtag bunch of scientists and explorers test out their own FTL drive, blunder into the Arena, and are forced to be the representatives of Humanity as they navigate the Arena’s strange rules and traditions. It’s all very oldschool space opera a-la Flash Gordon, and deliberately so. Spoor gives a shout out to Doc Smith in the book’s forward, and sprinkles in little shout outs here and there. For example, the daredevil spaceship captain names a racing ship the Skylark., and one of the main characters is named directly after a villain from said series as well. I’m sure there’s a lot of other winking nods that I missed over the course of the book.
Grand Central Arena works best when it’s in slam-bang action mode, and there’s a fair number of action sequences, as sometimes you’ve just got to solve problems through punching, or a breakneck spaceship race. One of the gimmicks of the novel is that, in the setting, humans are insane risk-takers when compared to the other various aliens. This allows humanity to shock all the greebly aliens by doing unpredictable, daredevil stunts that no sane creature would even contemplate. This is most embodied by one of the book’s main characters (and the woman on the cover there), Captain Ariane Austin, daredevil spaceship racing pilot.
On the other hand, since Grand Central Arena draws heavily from old-timey space opera, that means it’s got a lot of the same flaws. There are a lot of info drops, as Spoor likes to show off the all the intricate worldbuilding he’s put into the Arena. I kind of get the feeling he took a look at sci-fi megastructures along the lines of Niven’s Ringworld, and said “what if I do that, but BIGGER?” On top of that, the characterization for a lot of characters isn’t TOTALLY flat, but it’s not exactly super in-depth, either. There’s Austin, the daredevil pilot/captain, Dr. Sandrisson, the inventor of the FTL drive, and Dr. Duquense, a brilliant engineer who just happens to secretly be a nanotech-enhanced super soldier. As you do. Once you get past those three, however, there are five other members of the crew who are mostly forgettable, and seem to mostly be there because the ship needed certain positions filled, and also to have somebody to bounce exposition off of. There are also a couple of eye-rolling conceits in the book as well– like, the main characters use the replicator to make themselves katanas to tote around, ’cause Austin & Co played a lot of VR RPG’s so they’re halfway decent swordsmen. Or something.
All and all, Grand Central Arena is a perfectly serviceable bit of space opera. It didn’t blow my mind with its ideas or action, but it wasn’t actively offensive, either. The book also lacks the “ALIEN SPACE MUSLIMS ARE COMING TO STEAL YOUR GUNS THANKS OBAMA” reactionary stuff you see in certain Baen titles– which, uh, is something of a low bar to set. There are three more books in the series, which I might look into at some point. What’s interesting is that the fourth (and final? I dunno) book in the series wasn’t actually published by Baen, but rather the author self-published it through Kickstarter. Which, well … when Baen doesn’t want you, that’s kinda saying something. Still, if you’re in the mood for some throwback Sci-fi, Ryk E. Spoor’s got you covered.