Language and culture, Amelia Mance
In the Dark Spaces
Hardie Grant Egmont
At first, Cally Black’s debut novel In the Dark Spaces seems just like any YA sci-fi/dystopian novel; in a universe where resources are scarce, 14-year-old Tamara barely manages to survive as a stowaway on the Starweaver Layla, the spaceship where her aunt works. Tamara spends her days looking after her toddler cousin, Tamiki, and occasionally, in true sci-fi style, creeping through the vents to steal extra food. But, despite the stereotypical opening, Black’s imagination soon transports the reader on a thrilling journey through space. Beautifully written, Black’s rich description, combined with her creativity, puts In the Dark Spaces into a league of its own.
Tamara’s life changes drastically when the spaceship is attacked by the Garuwa, an alien race “half-crow, half scarecrow”. They massacre everyone aboard the ship, except for Tamara, who proves herself something of a curiosity and instead finds herself taken prisoner. Taken to the Garuwa’s “hive”, Tamara must learn their language or be killed. In doing so, she discovers the deeply empathetic and human side of this race and, against all odds, finds herself drawn into their family, all the while wrestling with the fact that, before she was taken captive, she hid Tamiki aboard the Layla. Now, with no way of knowing if he’s alive, Tamara must find a way to keep the promise she made to her aunt: “There’s no path back to my little Tamiki. I blink cold sweat from my eyes. Lazella’s voice in my head: ‘Doan you leave my bub alone!’ I’m sorry Aunty. I’m sorry as, I’ve let him down.” Torn between rescuing Tamiki, thus returning to the species that left her to starve, and her loyalty to the Garuwa, Tamara finds herself at the centre of the Garuwa-Human war, and the side she picks will determine the fate of both these species.
Throughout the novel, Black transports the reader from a typical sci-fi setting, a fleet of commercially owned spaceships, to a vividly imagined alien culture. Whilst the spaceships are well described and a necessary plot point, Black’s creativity really shows in her creation of the Garuwa. This purely female alien race communicates in whistles and lives in a fully conscious “hive”. The hive is “all white with soaring archways leading to bright rooms with curved ceilings”. And, unlike any spaceship, “It pulls a flood of ideas from my head”: it can read minds. This original setting is undoubtedly one of the highlights of In the Dark Spaces. The one bugbear a sci-fi fan might have with it is the total lack of science. Yes, there are vague allusions to space minerals which the Garuwa use to feed their hive but, apart from that, nothing. Whilst this doesn’t detract from the story, if your favourite part of sci-fi is the science, it might be best to think of this as fantasy instead.
Black’s creation of an original language is cleverly used to cement the differences between cultures and create a totally alien atmosphere! There is no need for a glossary, nor does the language feel clunky or forced, instead the reader learns alongside Tamara. Tamara’s grasp of the language is used to show her integration into the Garuwa’s culture, the more she understands the language the closer she becomes to the Garuwa. This immersion process is one anyone who’s lived in another country would recognise, and it reinforces the book’s message: that before we can condemn another culture, we must first understand it.
The other standout is the cast of well-developed and complex characters. Despite her quiet nature, Tamara’s distinct narrative voice reveals a quick-witted and occasionally sassy protagonist. Her fierce loyalty to those she considers family, regardless of species, combined with her daring escapades, will keep you on your toes. Another crucial character is Tootopone, who first appears as a ruthless and bloodthirsty commander. Yet, as the language barrier is broken down, Tamara discovers she is a deeply sensitive and protective character who would do anything to save her species.
In the Dark Spaces is a compelling read. Its originality, combined with a decent shot of action, will draw you in and, most importantly, give you something to think about. Whether that’s the question of what makes someone family and how far you’d go to save them? Or a reflection on the need to understand different communities. So, whether you’re looking for a new angle on sci-fi, or just something different, this book is for you.
Amelia Mance is 17, from Wellington.