This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
This week I also read The Chaos Job, Jackpot Drift Book 1, by T. M. Baumgartner.
All I really expected and hoped for from this book, based on the cover, was that it had something mildly amusing involving sheep in it. Never have my expectations been so thoroughly met, and exceeded.
I was intrigued, like I say, from the quirky title and cover of the book, and the opening hook was also neat – so I was on board from the start. This is reader-capture done exactly right. The Chaos Job introduces us to a very wild wild variant on the space western subgenre, and it’s very nicely done.
Sil – it’s short for Silver, and the prevailing neo-feudal culture of the story’s setting places great store in names denoting precious metals and minerals – is a Space Civil War veteran with a badly-tuned artificial leg, living in a run-down settlement on the frontier planet of Jackpot Drift, out in the middle of space nowhere. Rather than accept the shackles of civilisation and being beholden to The (Space) Man once again, she opted for a simple life of farming, trading her milk and cheese for the bare necessities down in the town near the farmland she was granted as a retirement right.
Sadly, milk and cheese require sheep and goats, and Sil’s sheep are fuckwits and her goats are … well, actually just goats. There are also mini-cows in this story but they’re presumably a bit too expensive for her, and there are horses but they’re definitely too expensive and also, have you ever tried to milk a horse? There’s a reason only Genghis Khan did that shit. But anyway. Even more sadly, Sil’s new homeworld is barely terraformed and is host to native wildlife and even plants that just completely fuck up any but the toughest livestock, and her mid-to-long-term plan to acquire genetically altered sheep sperm in order to breed some hardier stock is foiled by the local bully and quasi-noble, Glass.
Yes, this story is ultimately all about a tub of sheep jizz. Let’s just be clear on that.
Oh, and also Sil has some sort of parasite inside her – a “godlet of chaos”. We’re just casually introduced to this and expected to roll with it. I, for one, did. Because the whole story was just fucking fascinating.
Struggling to get by on a crappy patch of land on a crappy planet, her every attempt to improve her station shat upon by Glass who wants her to work for him as a nanotech repair mechanic, living in constant fear that her “godlet” will wind up getting her tracked down and taken away by chaos bounty hunters, and assisted on the farm by a deeply troubled AI named Stuck in the Mud, Sil is what you might characterise as a gorram mess (if one was of a mind to acknowledge the classics). She befriends a fellow war veteran – a “mech head” from the enemy side of the war, whose lot in life is even worse than hers – and together they just try to get to the end of the fucking book in one piece.
I was captivated, and amused, by this story from the start. Glass and his douchebaggery was infuriating, but his whole plot arc (especially with the horses) was hilarious and satisfying. The AIs scattered around town, conversation between which we are just randomly shown from time to time, were absolutely brilliant. The inevitable sheep-jizz heist, at least before the whole thing spiralled out of control and turned into something else entirely, was clean and simple. While we could ultimately have had a few less moving parts, the motivations of each character remained clear and the geometrically-escalating fuckedness of the whole situation was breathtaking … but never confusing.
And the payoff for the cover and title, specifically Mud’s sheep, was amazing. I laughed out loud. What a well-earned punchline after all the setup and technological worldbuilding. Every time we went back to the sheep, I laughed. That sheep was comedy gold. I don’t know if it was necessarily a load-bearing bit, but it was a fucking quality bit and I doff my hat to it.
All in all this was a fun, exciting, clever, page-turning little space western, with wonderful characters and a tight, intriguing plot. The villains were real shits, the heroes were also kind of grimy, and just when I was getting ready to roar in frustration it all concluded perfectly. In fact, I wasn’t really about to roar at any point, because I trusted Baumgartner and the narrative not to let me down. And I was not let down.
With a certain amount of classily expressed but entertainingly frequent sex, and some hot albeit anecdotal ghost moose on mini-cow action, this story has some raunch on its ranch. It doesn’t go overboard, but it’s solid. I give it a Yul Brynner’s head photoshopped to look like the knob-end of a penis out of a possible HBO’s version of Westworld.
There isn’t too much violence here, it’s not that sort of story – but it’s also a space western, so there’s a certain rough-and-tumble vibe to the whole thing. One-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
I was very happy with the amount and quality of WTF in this story. I still have no idea what the godlets are and how they relate to the other “gods” introduced into the book’s wider mythos. Is it pure fantasy somehow, or is it deep-electronic science-fantasy? What are the AIs up to? What’s happening out there in the universe beyond Jackpot Drift’s skies? What does any of it mean? Just have to read and find out, I guess. I give The Chaos Job a River Tam out of a possible River Song.
My Final Verdict
I was left a little uncertain as to why the book title was what it was, since it didn’t quite relate to the story – but sure, there was a job, and there was chaos, so fine. And given the wider context of the series and the other titles coming in, I can squint and call it justified. This book was really excellent. We get some good mystery and setup for the series, but marvellous closure on the book level. Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.