Boy, I gotta hand it to Carina Press. I’ve only read three of their eBooks (on my laptop, because I have no e-reader or smart phone, insert tears of self-pity here). None of the three was what I would call a classic work of literature that will be treasured through the ages, but DAMN have they been fun! Alas, while this stared off as super fun, it fell completely apart near the end. Still, points to Appleton for creating a great sense of place(s) and a loving tribute to the pulp science fiction magazines and gritty westerns of the past.
Sparks in Cosmic Dust is listed as science fiction, not science fiction romance, and I can see why, as it is primarily an adventure story and a science-fiction /Western blend. However, it does have a huge romance focus so I’d say it qualifies as a romance novel. The strength of Sparks is that it understands its lineage and is here to give us an old-fashioned, B-movie, dimestore pulp novel good time. The acknowledgement page discusses the author’s fond debt to the film “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, which inspires the plot and some the character types, as well as the atmosphere. As the book progresses, it becomes increasingly reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs, so it’s delightful when a paperback copy of a Burroughs book appears in Sparks at a most unlikely place and time. The weakness is that it’s an awfully fine line between retro pulp genius and bad pulp garbage and Sparks crosses that line spectacularly with a god-awful sex scene in Chapter Twenty-Two and never fully recovers.
The plot concerns five people who meet, more or less randomly, on an isolated planetary outpost (Kappa Max) that is careening downhill fast. One thing Appleton excels at is capturing the desperation of the people who came to this frontier to hide from their pasts, but are now frantic to escape from an oppressive and miserable present. Kappa Max has no future, everyone wants to leave, and no one is having a good time. Varina Wilcox, (Hooker with a Heart of Gold) takes on a good-looking client, Solomon Bodine (Stud with Broken Heart) in hopes of getting out of her contract with the owner of the bordello where she works. Meanwhile Clay Barry (Stud With a Secret) partners with Lyssa Foaloak (basically Bonnie, as in “Bonnie and Clyde”) for a crime spree. The two couples meet Grace Peters (Grizzled Prospector). Grace convinces them to join her on a ten-month long prospecting journey to another planet where riches await – if they can survive hostile aliens, hostile rival miners, hostile government forces, and each other. To make matters worse, the item they are prospecting for emits intoxicating fumes, making the search for the precious element literally, as well as metaphorically, addictive.
There’s nothing wildly original about Sparks, and the characters are stock, but that’s OK – it has lovely imagery, very good world-building, tons of action, and it pays loving homage to its inspirations. Up until Chapter Twenty-Two, I really expected it to earn a better grade just for being a good old-fashioned pulp romp. The explicit sex did not rock my world but everyone seemed to be acting in character, and hey, mileage varies, right? But, oh, you guys, the horror that is Chapter Twenty-Two. Not only is the whole scene wildly improbable given what just happened before it, but the writing falls apart into such clichéd prose that its almost parody, but we’re clearly supposed to take it seriously. People, her breasts heave. Really, that’s the phrase: “her heaving breasts”. Then, and it pains me to tell you this, Appleton continues on to compare the hero’s penis to a joystick. A WHAT? That is not erotic! It doesn’t even make sense when describing the action being described! You don’t (usually) insert a joystick into anything! I’d quote the whole sentence, but I can’t, because my mother might read this review (Hi, Mom!) and I’d scar her for life, and possibly permanently damage the sex lives of the more fragile of our readers.
After the sex scene from Hell, the book improves again, but it never really recovers its potential. There’s a character whose Christian background is referred to as causing all kinds of problems with his psyche, but the nature of how his emotional and mental problems relate to his religious upbringing is never explored so it’s just a cheap device. As a non-Christian, I have no particular pro-Christian agenda to promote, but I’m not a fan of intolerance either, and I found the bigotry to be really offensive, not to mention a waste of what could have been an interesting exploration of different values and morals in difficult circumstances. There’s another scene where all five protagonists participate in such a shockingly immoral act that I kept expecting it to be portrayed as part of their descent into madness and greed, but instead it’s treated as harsh but pragmatic and necessary. I didn’t buy it, and I lost most of my sympathy for the characters after their actions were so casually dismissed by themselves and by the author.
I was sorry that the quality of the first part of the book didn’t hold up all the way through, because there was really was some strong writing in it. Granted, it was writing that would only appeal to specific tastes, but there’s no crime in picking one thing to do and doing it well. I would be interested in reading more of Appleton’s work although the Sex Scene of Doom may scare me away forever. Best of luck, readers, and don’t read Chapter Twenty-Two!