Fool’s War by Sarah Zettel. ★★★★★
I originally gave this book four stars because I liked it so much. When I found myself shelving it under “Favorites,” I realized that I didn’t just like it, I loved it.
And there’s so much to love about this book. The plotting is excellent, the pacing moves right along, the writing is smooth and flows well, the characters are strong and sympathetic, there’s more than one good female character, and one of the main characters is a Muslim woman who’s chief engineer of her own spaceship. How often have you seen that?
Fool’s War is set several hundred years in the future when space travel is common place and there are many human colonies. These colonies are connected by a faster than light network which shares mainly financial information as FTL communications are costly and inefficient. To fill the gap, there are data companies such as the spaceship Pasadena, which Al-Shei shares ownership of with her brother-in-law. He’ll pilot the ship with his own crew for eight months and carries on some smuggling on the side while Al-Shei stays on Earth with her husband and children. Then, she’ll take the ship for eight months and run a legitimate business. Obviously, this situation is going to lead to trouble.
When the trouble arrives, it is of a kind feared and familiar to the people of this universe: a rogue Artificial Intelligence. Periodically in the networks and computer systems of this universe, and AI will gain sentience. It will then go rogue and destroy everything in its path.
Even before the situation comes to its head, other conflicts are brewing among the crew, mainly centered around ideological differences regarding AIs. The communications officer, Lipinski, grew up on a world devastated by a rogue AI attack. He’s paranoid of all AIs and people who support them. The new pilot, Yerusha, is a Freer, a culture that believes that AIs contain reincarnated human souls. They try to encourage AIs to develop sentience, because they think it will lead to immortality for the human race. She and Lipinski are at odds almost immediately.
In the middle of the entire situation is a character who would seem unlikely: Evelyn Dobbs, the ship’s Fool. The ship Fool nominally provides entertainment on the long space journeys, but they also act as something like a counselor and try to prevent disputes arising among crew members and to keep the crew in a good mood. In addition, the Fool’s Guild has a secret agenda of their own and may not be all what they seem…
The book is slow going for the first couple of chapters, but the pace picks up pretty soon. By the end, I was riveted to the page. My only problem is that I wish there was more! This is a stand alone, the only book set in this universe. The plot wraps up fine, there’s no loose ends, but I want more of this world and these characters! They’re too good for just one book!
All and all, I recommend anyone even vaguely interested in science fiction to pick this up, particularly if you’re looking for a multicultural group of characters and some well written female protagonists.