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Book Review: City of Ruins by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Genre: Adventure, Science Fiction, First Contact
Paperback: 340 pages
Publisher: Pyr
Publication Date: May 24, 2011
ISBN-10: 161614369X
ISBN-13: 978-1616143695
Author Website: Kristine Kathryn Rusch

“Archaeology is made up entirely of anomalies,” said Terrence, “rearranged to make them fit in a fluky pattern. There’d be no system to it otherwise.” – R. A. Lafferty, Continued on Next Rock

Kristine Kathryn Rusch continues her series of archeological adventure stories with City of Ruins, the second novel set in her Diving universe featuring the unflappable explorer known only as Boss. Many years have passed since the events of Diving into the Wreck and Boss’s first discovery of the fabled “stealth tech” – a technology found on wrecked spaceships so dangerous only those with a certain genetic marker can approach without being killed. Boss is one of these, but others Boss has known were not. Boss is still haunted by the deaths of her mother several colleagues at the hands of this ancient tech.

Determined to keep stealth tech out of the hands of the Empire and maintain the balance of power in her sector of space, Boss has formed a corporation that seeks out the lost Dignity Vessels of the ancient Fleet in the most barren reaches of space. But when one of her employees insists that she has discovered a planetside location of the stealth tech on Wyr, Boss is skeptical. Never before has stealth tech been found on a planet, only on wrecked Dignity vessels. Then Boss dives into the unstable caverns deep below the city of Vaycehn and finds the solution to the enigma of the Dignity Vessels that could change the political and technological future of her universe.

City of Ruins takes Boss out of her element – space and weightlessness- makes her landbound and forces her underground. The restrictions of gravity are just the most basic of her problems, however. In Diving into the Wreck, Boss was a loner, completely on her own and prone to recklessness. Yet now Boss is the CEO of an archeological and scientific organization and has many employees who depend on her. Though Boss is used to the bonds of partnership, she is less capable of dealing with wily and fractious underlings. This includes the Six, six untrained individuals (one is an accountant for goodness’ sake) who happen to have the genetic marker necessary to enter stealth tech fields. Boss has entered a whole new minefield strewn not with physical hazards, but emotional ones. Of course, Boss’s natural and acquired leadership skills rise to the surface even as she digs deep underground.

Rusch introduces a new character perspective to the story in City of Ruins. While the first novel was almost entirely focused on Boss, City of Ruins introduces the reader to Coop, captain of the Ivoire from whom the reader learns the truth behind the stealth tech. What Rusch is juxtaposed two leadership styles and methodologies, switching back and forth between their perspectives as the two leaders warily circle one another for the majority of the novel.

Some readers may find the story to be a bit slow. It is a novel of first contact, and Rusch deliberately makes the pacing sedate but content exciting in order to heighten suspense. Though in many ways the Fleet resembles the Federation of Star Trek – philosophically, missionally, technologically – it is much more careful in its first contact policies than even the Prime Directive requires. Boss and Coop warily approach each other through the course of the novel, slowly gauging each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The posturing and careful positioning slow the narrative pacing, making City of Ruins less exciting than its predecessor.

This is not to say that City of Ruins lacks the action or energy of Diving into the Wreck entirely. But while the danger of death was more immediate in the first novel, here the emphasis is on suspense – on unanswered questions being slowly answered. There are certainly exciting parts of the story like when Boss and her team of Six are nearly trapped underground, or when they race across the Vaycehn on hovercarts trying to avoid the authorities, and certainly the first contact between Boss and Coop has its own sort of excitement – but this is not the story’s primary method of holding reader’s interest. That is left to the thrill of discovery, of exploring the unknown, of finding answers to ancient questions – the excitement of the slow, physically and intellectually demanding discipline of archeology.

I suggest that readers do not begin reading in the Diving universe with City of Ruins. While it is certainly possible for a reader to do so easily, Diving into the Wreck informs so heavily on the sequel that the series is best read in order. The tale is left open-ended but Rusch assures the reader in the author’s note (along with a useful list of all the Diving stories) that there will be more Diving stories to continue Boss’ narrative. Though City of Ruins is not as good as its predecessor, it is still an excellent adventure story about an exciting and unusual protagonist that I highly recommend.