Lucifer’s Nebula, by C. T. Phipps and Michael Suttkus is the second novel in the adventures of Cassius Mass, a devilishly handsome former prince of a cruel planet that no longer exists. This is like Star Wars if it were written in a darker and more cruel (and arguably fun) universe.
Lucifer’s Nebula is a sequel to the first book, Lucifer’s Star, in which we learned that the universe has experienced governmental turmoil, civilizations have been ravaged, and an ancient set of beings known as the Elder Races have left their mark on the current civilization. This book picks up where the first left off in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you’ve missed a step between the books.
We find our reluctant hero, Cassius Mass, as the hesitant Captain of the Melampus, the ship that he had been flying on during the previous book. His crew is filled with variously colorful characters, including his two lovers, the aggressive First Mate, Clarice, and the ship’s medical officer, Isla. Isla is also a bioroid, which is like a fleshy C-3PO who’s artificial intelligence is so advanced that it’s considered (by some) to be a sentient being. Many of the bioroid’s of this universe are enslaved, as most people see them less like people and more like machines. Isla’s struggle, in this book and the last, reminds me of Pris from the original Blade Runner. She was made for one purpose (in Isla’s case, sex), but rebels against her users to follow her true calling. At this point, that mostly consists of being a medical officer and hanging out with Cassius’s pirate crew.
Most of the cast of Lucifer’s Nebula (and the whole series, really) is incredibly broken or has experienced some sort of trauma. One of my favorite characters, William, had to deal with his entire world being ravaged and destroyed by one of the warring governments. Major Terra (introduced in this book) is a brainwashed soldier from that same world as William. She was kidnapped by her conquerors and brainwashed to be their loyal assassin. Everyone’s broken. The Melampus wouldn’t be remiss in renaming itself “The Isle of Misfit Toys.”
This broken aesthetic doesn’t end with just the crew, as their Captain is the most broken of them all. Inside his head he relives and can never escape the memories of all of the people that he’s killed or led into a battle that’s gotten them killed. One of those ghosts is his dead wife, who seems to have lost much of her humanity in her transition from living flesh to digital ghost. He’s wracked with guilt and anger over who he was and what he’s lost and he desperately wishes to atone for the life he’s lived.
In book one, this led us into the great character arcs that Phipps and Suttkus are famous for. Phipps always manages to introduce you to an utterly broken person and show us their path toward healing. When book 1 ended, we had hope for Cassius.
Then book 2 started, and we were saddled with an uncomfortable reality. While a lot of what was broken in these characters was healed, life doesn’t let you forget about the parts that you haven’t fixed yet. Cassius is still addicted to his alcohol and self-destructive tendencies, and the character journeys in this book help us to see the more human side of addiction, abuse, and violence on both a global and a personal scale.
There’s politics, huge twists, and adventure galore, but the big win with any book that has Phipps’s name on it is the character development (and the action. Lots of great action.).