Space opera has become an almost impossible thing to review. The quantity of material accumulating in the past half-century so vast, it’s virtually infeasible for books to poke their nose above the waters. Breaking any particular book down into its component parts starts to sound like a broken record: “aliens… space ship… lasers… unknown… planet… threat… universe…” And when you factor in the fact that every reader has their own preferred style, trusting a review to shine the light on a standout space opera book or series is not the easiest. So, simply put, Gary Gibson’s Stealing Light (2007), first of a trio of books in the Shoal Sequence, is standard but solid space opera.
Aliens, space ships, unknowns, planets, threats, universe—yes! Stealing Light is set some X thousand years in the future when humanity has started to explore the galaxy and… encountered a group of fish-like aliens called the Shoal exponentially more intelligent than we neo-chimps. Granting humanity a corner of the galaxy and limiting knowledge about faster-than-light travel, the Shoal prove beneficent if not mysterious overseers. The story centers around a woman named, Dakota. A machine-head, she operates on the fringes of society as a specialized ship pilot, earning money where and when opportunities arise. Receiving a commission she can’t refuse one day, Dakota finds herself in cahoots with one of the galaxy’s most evil-minded politicians, even as broader, unexplained events in the wider universe close in.
Aliens, space ships, unknowns, planets, threats, universe—yes, Stealing Light delivers all of the variables a reader of space opera expects in a milieu of story that likewise checks the boxes in original enough fashion, i.e. Gibson focuses on plot and character rather than the extensive minutiae of setting and other spurious details. Thus, if you like Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, Ken Macleod, and other, similar writers, then Gary Gibson’s Stealing Light should be of interest. The novel fits directly into that sphere of work, and is unnoticeably higher or lower in quality. Solid space opera, for what it’s worth.