Book Review: Quarter Share, by Nathan Lowell
Nathan Lowell’s novel Quarter Share is a very pleasant read. It’s about a young man named Ishmael (yes, Ishmael like in Moby-Dick, and the author is having some fun with that), who, through an unfortunate set of events, finds himself suddenly on his own and forced to leave the “nest” as it were. He seeks his fortune on a space freighter, and the novel is underway following that experience.
I think the best part about this book is that it is a place to go and spend some time. It is a setting in which you can drop right in and experience what is happening in a very real-seeming way. Lowell is meticulous in his construction of the ship and real duties performed by its crew. I’m not a bio-tech or an engineer, or even a coffee connoisseur, but it’s all rendered very believable for me. Much of this book, in its authentic feel, speak of a fine eye for detail, a mechanical bent and real experience or at the very least research on the part of this author (in the back of the book a short bio on Lowell tells of a career in the United States Coast Guard, which is the root of the perspective he brings to this book).
A large part of why the novel is so completely readable and authentic feeling is that Lowell has nicely polished prose, his control and pacing are excellent and the book is simply a pleasure to read on that count. Frequently I found myself really in awe of some of the fine descriptive work. For example, when introduced early on, the ship’s first mate is described as “built like a knife with razor edges outlining his face and hardened steel in his bearing” with eyes that “tracked like the twin barrels of some odd gun, precise, mechanical, dead” (found at 285/3167 – 8% on my Kindle). I loved how well Lowell did that in places, and he uses that bit nicely later too, as here and there in the book that character will “aim” his eyes at people and that sort of thing. It’s the kind of attention to detail and descriptive artistry that make reading this book fun.
I think my main beef with Quarter Share is that, by my definition at least, it’s not a story. At least not yet. It’s part of a six book series called The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper, and this novel, which is pretty short, reads more like a long first chapter than a novel in its own right. It’s a wonderful first chapter, but I don’t think it counts as a story.
To my mind, something has to happen in a story beyond the events that take place. There has to be something at stake, some kind of goal or issue that shapes itself and, over the course of a novel, finds some kind of resolution. A story with nothing at stake beyond the daily experience is a report, the recording of a sequence of events. Now, it can be argued that what is at stake in Quarter Share is the main character Ishmael has suffered a loss and finds himself faced with having to deal with the ramifications of that loss. It might be said that what is at stake is that he might not be accepted by the crew, or not up to the task of learning or adapting to life on a ship. There are obviously conflicts and frustrations that arise from having to leave one’s familiar environment and go do something new. But I’m not sure following someone from Experience Set 1 into Experience Set 2 counts as a story. To my mind, that is a report, a long series of “a day in the life of Ishmael” kind of thing. There is nothing at stake for the character that isn’t at stake for all the rest of us. If we don’t get a job we don’t eat. We lose our home, our self esteem, etc. If nobody likes us or we can’t adapt to a new culture, we might become a drifter or die. Lots of stuff. But in my mind, a story has to do more than have that working in the background. There has to be some sort of direct threat, some menace, antagonist, or obstacle.
In addition, the choice of the name Ishmael for the main character, and thereby the invocation of Melville and Moby-Dick, sets up an expectation or at least anticipation for something deeper in the text, some examination of purpose or meaning, some complication of good and evil, some conflict with nature or language… something. For now, at least in my opinion, Quarter Share has no threat, no menace, and no antagonist, and I don’t feel that I am seeing the underpinnings of something deeply introspective or philosophically complex. Now I get that this is a sci-fi genre thing, or seems to be, but the choice of Ishmael as the name for a protagonist does not come without some risk of readers expecting that there might be more beneath the surface of that thar sea.
And speaking of surfaces of seas, when it comes to the supporting cast, there is no turbulence in the waters there at all. Not even the knife-edge guy. This is my second, albeit minor, issue with this book. To me it seems like everyone in it is just so dang nice. It’s almost saccharine. There were several places where I found myself feeling like I was reading a Disney book. They’re all that nice. However, in saying that, I probably sound like some jaded old cynic, so I’ll accept that the author is trying to show a world filled with honest, kind-hearted and delightfully ordinary people going about their lives, which is something he mentions as his goal in the bio at the back of the book. Maybe I am just a crotchety old curmudgeon, so, I guess you kids better stay off my lawn!
The bottom line on Quarter Share for me is this: It’s a really pleasant, easy to read book about good people doing interesting things. And when I say interesting, I mean, very ordinary things that are made interesting by the wonderful way Lowell renders them. This book will be especially good if you are the kind of reader who likes the nitty-gritty details of the technology in a science fiction story. Lowell does a great job of that, and you really do get a marvelous sense of being on the ship in all its rhythms, regularities and intricacies. For that experience alone the book is worth reading. And besides, you’ll like the characters, even if they are all ultra nice. They are good, honest, warm people, and you’ll need a lot harder and more cynical heart than mine not to enjoy them. The story arc may shape up more in the next book and deeper meanings may begin to unfold as well, making them all the more enjoyable.
The series looks interesting, and I will likely read the next one at some point. The truth is, however, at the end of this one, I felt no fear for Ishmael and his plight, so I’m in no rush. There was no dangling thread of menace, no tension, no essential question that I simply had to learn the answer to, so, while I enjoyed the read, when I came to the end, I was in a good mood but had no driving compulsion to see what happened next. I am curious, an affectionate curiosity even, but it’s curiosity without urgency.
I’m not sure what else to call that, but I’m giving it a Center Centaur for now. It’s a good read. Others have given it high marks on Amazon, so if you like a very tech-heavy kind of book that reads fast and has wonderfully descriptive prose in it, this might be the kind of series you will eat right up.