THE SCALPEL Review: Spine-tingling Space-opera

Strap in tight and bite down on that Geode leaf. James Worrad’s space-opera, THE SCALPEL, delivers one helluva mind-bending trip through the galaxies. Every chapter opens new concepts, any one of which could power a whole novel. The tone slides continuously from rollicking adventure to other-worldly enchantment to sweaty horror. And somewhere out there on the margins of the universe are the great space-beasts, the Scalpel. Every star-system has its own name for them, and all justly fear them.

‘Note the Scalpel’s draconian head … The dracocephalic archetype surfaces in every known human culture.’ The great shadow loomed, framed in coldest blue.

What anchors the ride through ‘broken worlds and the palaces of their psychotic warlords’ is a trinity of fascinating and conflicted POV characters. There’s the assassin Melid of Silvercloud, agent of a telepathic Kollective with designs on intergalactic expansion. She’s on the trail of a spiritual drug-pusher called Swirl Savard. Except Swirl-Sparkle are really conjoined personalities in a one-body ‘triune’ that has lost its third wheel: ‘We do not talk about Pearl.’ Swirl (for now) is exiled to the Rig, a mile-long space slum at the back-end of the universe. And here, on the run, like a black split-personality Princess Leia, she hires her ride out with a bubble-man named Hargie Stukes. Hargie is afflicted by his philosophy of empathic rationalism in a universe where ‘everyone sees things their own damn way.’ But the love of his life is his bubble-ship, Princess Floofy, which he steers via his own faster-than-light neuralware. These three protagonists collide in ways that rewire everything they thought they knew about themselves and their scattered worlds.

The book’s crackling energy comes as much from the earthy humour as the complex world-building. I loved the linguistic playfulness with which Worrad evokes clashing cultures, each with its own idioms. Take the mind-melding chatter of the one-body siblings when Sparkle is hanging out with Swirl’s lover (unbeknownst to him):

Being currently head-descendant – watching from the back-seat, so to speak – Swirl’s viewpoint was dictated by wherever Sparkle chose to point it.

:Could you at least smile at him?: Swirl sent. :For me?:

Swirl felt their face make a sarcastic-feeling grin. Lyreko’s frown confirmed it.

Swirl received a message from Sparkle. :If you wanted to ascend right now, I’d be entirely happy with that, sister-my-love.:

Their passive-aggressive bickering is a hoot that occasionally veers into much darker territory. By contrast, Melid’s Kollective are verbally terse as they prefer to emote directly to each other. Here she addresses a subordinate agent she encounters in the ablution-sphere:

‘Instrum Doum,’ Melid said. They ignored each other’s hypothalmic frenzy at seeing one another naked. ‘Amongst Worlders soon.’

He looked at her … ‘Have to shower, Emissary. Also now masturbate.’

‘Of course.’

Meanwhile Hargie is brushing up his bar-room banter as a roving bubbleman trader, always the planetary outsider:

The front door hummed open and four guys stepped out of the night… some kind of peaked cap and uniform.

‘No-one scrap-mouths Import,’ Uniform said, slapping a gloved palm on the bar. Liquid splashed Hargie’s cheek. ‘Hear me, Captain Fucko?’

‘I tune,’ Hargie said. ‘I’ll keep it in mind, sir.’

‘Fucking bubble-turd,’ Uniform said… ‘We heard you…. Well, screw you! Outworlder motherfucker warp-jackal fuck.’

If you’re thinking this could be a Star Wars bar-room brawl with more inventive swearing and carnivorous dogs called Jaqruzzils, let me tell you, things are about to get a whole lot weirder.

An elongated figure, horned, appeared out of the haze. It had no eyes, no features, save a fanged and grinning mouth… A seahorse shape, anorexic, with a spiny sail down its back. It sent a shiver through Hargie. Ice water ran through the marrow of his spine. Foozle … The Great Foozle. The beast itself, the vacuum-made-flesh.

Elaborate as the world-building is, it never slows the pace, so it’s a case of ‘Keep up, reader.’ I resorted to taking notes. With each warp-jump, there’s a complex layering of worlds-within-worlds to imagine. And gradually we uncover the ways in which each culture masks essential truths from its citizens as much as outsiders, whilst plotting dangerous power-plays. This make for high stakes and not just for their intergalactic populations. It matters because each of our three protagonists nurses their own aching loss as well as a burning desire to make good their personal fractured realties. Be warned. Worrad steers all three of them to a breath-taking cliff hanger in this first book of The Feral Space trilogy. Luckily his sequel, The Delighted Ones, is already out. So you can plug in your neuralware and tumble after Swirl-Sparkle, Melid and Hargie down the galactic rabbit-hole of its ending. If you’re as hooked as this Geode-leaf junkie, you’ll be hungry for your next fix.

THE SCALPEL, James Worrad, Castrum Books, 2018