The Dante family is the preeminent military clan in a world where Earth has survived a would-be apocalypse to become unified and expansionist into the solar system. Yet there are still factions at odds with one another: rival corporate families ruling planets like 19th century robber barons, the quasi-military Alliance ostensibly governing Earth, Moon, Mars, and the colonies of the outer planets, and the great mass of people caught between the institutions framing this new universe. And also, a dark force that is just now revealing itself thanks to a centuries old pact come to fruition.
Admiral Dante knows that there is something corrupt and deadly going on in Striker Industries, responsible for rebuilding Earth after the last world war and increasing humanity’s reach to the stars. However, the admiral is seen as an outlier and a bit of crank. He can only rely upon his own children (Michael, Kate, and Kristin) each of whom have either prominent or infamous places in the military and government. Soon the Dante family becomes too inquisitive and must be permanently silenced by the scion of the Striker family, Ethan Striker, according to the mysterious forces manipulating him. The death of the Admiral sends his favorite child, Kate Dante, on point for revenge and to reveal the corruption at the heart of human civilization. The battle soon turns into one of more than mere political intrigue; it is an existential struggle for the whole of the species.
Evolution’s End by C.J. Daniels gives us a gritty space drama filled with equal parts intrigue and action. Science fiction lovers will see echoes of book series and show The Expanse by James S.A. Core as well as a host of familiar tropes. Kate Daniels is the central protagonist being the asskicking, no-lip taking, genius child Princess Leia and Han Solo never had but filled all of our dreams. The author made a conscious decision to write Kate (and her sister Kristin) as powerful, willful, and skilled women standing as heroes by right:
“I’ve written a number of novels where I’ve endeavored to bring the female characters above the ‘damsel in distress’ roles,” Daniels explains. “The characters of Kristin and Kate Dante are well beyond that and are more adept at handling themselves than their male counterparts.”
It is a refreshing angle that, due to Daniels’ skill in storytelling, moves beyond gimmick or tactic to feel like a completely natural and necessary thing. The Dante women are akin to Starbuck of Battlestar Galactica, only angrier and more emotionally complex. But comparisons would only serve to distract from the quality of the writing and the story being told. Daniels has crafted a world of his own in which to set his space opera, and it stands firmly on its own merit.
The story is a gripping one. It does take a little bit to get going simply because Daniels has to engage in a good smattering of world-building to situate us. This is always the knock against the first novel in a series, it has to do a lot of the heavy-lifting from which later books benefit. Yet Daniels is concise getting us to the actual action before we get too bogged down in minutiae. Alternating between points of view within the Dante clan, readers are exposed to a complex yet direct narrative that immediately sucks you in. As the stakes are revealed in this extraordinarily well-paced novel, we get dynamic action scenes, compelling character interactions, and absorbing plot building to an epic space battle.
There’s the brilliant Michael Dante, drafted by his father to go on an undercover mission to Mars, the prodigal Kate Dante who was very publicly dishonorably discharged so as to maintain her own deep cover as she infiltrates the same organization her father believes to be corrupt, and then Kristin Dante, second command on the Alliance’s biggest, shiniest space ship accidentally making first contact with an alien species that looks to immediately supplant human life.
These aliens, the spider-like parasitic footsoldiers (N’Torr) that steal the knowledge of their human hosts and their shadowy masters (Jek’Tan) who have been a sinister invisible hand building up human society post-apocalypse for some nefarious purpose, as well as their creations take us out of mere family drama or space opera intrigue into the realms of proper sci-fi action. Yet at no point does the action feel forced or false, every scene Daniels composes builds on each other while giving the reader enough clues to anticipate the narrative. It’s rare for the narrative voice in science fiction to not be dictating, letting you know exactly what to think and why in many, many words.
Although not conceptual, hard science fiction, Evolution’s End is a superb sci-fi novel and as the first of a series very, very promising. Daniels has a gift for writing scenes demanding to be imagined. Whether it’s Kate driving a relic automobile (“the 200-year-old, pre-war Mustang Cobra” that her father restored and kept) through the post-apocalyptic streets of a burnt out Brooklyn, Kristin devising a desperate guns-blazing escape from aliens in deep space, or Michael arguing with holograms and AI as he pieces together the secrets of Striker Industries and the Jek’tan, Daniels’s style is very cinematic.
The world the Dantes inhabit is at once familiar and strange making for the best kind of sci-fi adventure. This coupled with just how well Kate and Kristin Dante are fleshed out as characters embracing and challenging the world around them and one can’t help but enjoy the novel. Secret intelligence, a dark history, morally contemptible elites, monstrosities in space and different worlds, starships battling, and the challenges to the unbreakable human will permeate the Evolution’s End. This is an excellent start to a new series.
A fan of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, C.J. Daniels has three novels, and a short story in the Lost Planets anthology alongside legendary authors including Ray Bradbury, Philip K .Dick, Edgar Allan Poe. Born in Brooklyn, but living in New Hampshire, C.J. is a comicbook, video game, and crazed techno nerd, with a passion for the classics, as well as everything Star Trek and Star Wars.
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