In my review of Red Rain, four years ago, I wrote that “There are, in my experience, only a few authors whose work makes me say, after only a sample, ‘I must read the rest of this!’ … but based on that first sample of Red Rain Aubrey Hansen is another. And once I had the book in my hands and started reading it, I had to keep going until I finished.”
With her second entry into the series she is calling “the Unaccepted,” a prequel novelette titled “Project 74,” much the same thing happened. Despite the disinclination I mentioned in my earlier review to reread Red Rain, and having never had any desire to read more about the characters or world of “the United,” after she sent me a copy (in exchange for an honest review, I hereby note and disclose) and I started reading, I could not set it down or look away without coming back to it no more than two minutes later to keep reading.
In Red Rain, what kept me coming back was the plot: I “had to find out what happened next.” With “Project 74,” a prequel to the original novella, I knew what happened at and after the end, just not how the story got there, and after finishing Red Rain I had (unlike her most vocal fans, who demanded a sequel from about the day of its release) never been curious to know more. But the narrative voice gripped me from the beginning of “Project 74” to its end.
This is Aubrey Hansen’s first collaboration with a co-author, David J. Hartung, with whom she is also working on the sequel to Red Rain. When I tried to read “Crook Q,” his Red Rain fan-fiction that she liked well enough to take (if I understood and remember correctly) as the basis for that sequel and invite him to be her co-author, I found it as impossible to “get into” as Red Rain was irresistible. But somehow, despite the palpable evil and insanity in the scenes from “Dr. Nic”‘s point of view (and in his words and actions in the scenes seen through the eyes of Ephesus), reading from “inside the villain’s head” is merely unpleasant instead of being oppressive when the scenes are either written or revised by Aubrey Hansen. (And while it is quite clear that Dr. Nic is a depraved, amoral, and self-centered man, the scenes in this book where we read his thoughts are not nearly so depressing to read or difficult to get through as the passages with the Un-Man in Perelandra, whom Dr. Nic now in retrospect reminds me of.)
For those fans hungry for more about Red Rain‘s characters, “Project 74” is an interesting, somewhat-extended look at one character who appears (if I remember correctly) only once in the original novella and another who (I think) doesn’t appear “on screen” in the earlier work at all, and who I recall as basically forgettable there except for the revelation near the end of his top-secret project that gives the book its name. We even get a brief scene from the point of view of Philadelphia (“Philli”), the protagonist and narrator of Red Rain. But it’s still only a novelette.
On the other hand, if you were desperately wanting to know more about the universe of “the United” and Red Rain, “Project 74” will probably be enough to whet your appetite, but not much more. This story paints the political landscape with more nuance than the earlier novella, perhaps because Philli is a younger and, despite “reeducation camp” life, more naive teenage girl and her older brother Ephesus is an older, far more educated man, and undoubtedly because we get the Martian governor’s side from “inside his own head.” But, as in Red Rain only more so at this length, the worldbuilding is sparse and functional, science and technology mentioned only when they are used by the plot, and then only briefly. (This is less understandable when the point-of-view characters are grown men and scientists than when we see only through the eyes of a teenage girl, but it takes months or more for Ephesus to even begin questioning what his research is going to be used for, and Dr. Nic is clearly at least very nearly insane, so even that scarcity of detail is consistent with the characters as the story portrays them.)
But it is the narrative voice that carries the story, as I alluded to above, and here Aubrey Hansen has shown (if the alternate-historical Peter’s Angel was not evidence enough) her mastery. While I’m still not-entirely-patiently waiting for her to turn her attention to Erde, the unique and fascinating fantasy world she has imagined but not yet written in “where everything fades as it ages,” she writes with such a strong voice that I’m likely to want to at least try reading just about everything she writes. (Well, maybe not the coffee cookbook she says she’s publishing next …)
As I mentioned at the beginning of my review, once I started into “Project 74” I couldn’t put it down for more than a minute or two. (And, as this was in the late evening when I was already late getting to bed, this meant I stayed up a couple more hours.) This doesn’t happen to me very often, especially with works that are new to me; the one time I can remember was my first time reading Pride and Prejudice, almost ten years ago. (Staying up late reading because I’ve lost track of time has been fairly common in my life, but a work that pulls me back within minutes when I set it down is rare.) In fact, the converse—when I feel like I have to set a book aside because “I can’t look!”—happens fairly often, even in stories that I have read.
And Aubrey Hansen’s narrative voice in “Project 74” is strong enough to overcome the weakness of the medium. I find that I’m far more critical, my mind latching onto details instead of taking in the picture, when I’m reading on a computer or tablet screen than from a physical book. And I’m likely to miss even more from reading too fast. But even on in the Kindle fonts this novelette gripped me from its opening paragraphs until its end.