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The Ghost Line by Gray & HerbisonTwo and a half stars
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Pitching itself as something like “Titanic meets The Shining in space,” The Ghost Line, another Tor.com Publishing novella, doesn’t really qualify as SF horror, nor as especially good space opera, and what praise it deserves is more for the cleverness of its ideas than the success of their execution. Ultimately, The Ghost Line neither sinks nor swims. It just sort of floats.

Saga and Michel are a married couple who earn their living as freelance salvagers throughout the solar system, and Saga pulls in extra income from the video recordings she makes of their finds. They’d like to settle down and start a family, but they’re offered one of those jobs where the money’s too good (and Saga has an ailing mother who could use the help) and end up flying out under a secretive captain, Wei, and her alcoholic pilot Gregor, to the derelict luxury liner Martian Queen. Martian Queen didn’t exactly meet a Titanic-style fate. It was simply mothballed and allowed to go adrift, once the Earth-to-Mars luxury cruise market dried up and the cost to tow the vessel back home would have been more than it was worth. Wei wants to steal the whole ship.

Once they arrive, things get odd. Wei acts downright paranoid. The ship’s robotic staff are still active. When Saga and Michel sleep in one of the luxury cabins, they wake to find formal clothing, in their correct size, has appeared in the closets. Gregor has no trouble raiding the bar. And walking into the banquet room, Saga finds the place full of revelers and diners in fancy dress. Ghosts? Holograms? What is going on with this place?

The story delivers some effectively creepy atmosphere in its early chapters, often coming very close to making Martian Queen feel like, if not the Titanic, perhaps the Overlook Hotel in space. If the authors make an impression with anything, it’s the clever way in which they’ve reimagined the concept of a “haunted” vessel at its root. And from an SFnal standpoint, what is finally revealed to be happening aboard the ship is interesting too. But the story’s use of these ideas doesn’t generate much tension. Saga gets the lion’s share of character development here, as we learn of the guilt she has felt over her mother, and how she is full of bitter self-recrimination, feeling as if her whole career has been an excuse to run away from responsibility. Rather too tidily, the story then allows Saga a path to redemption, which, while it doesn’t lack for emotional resonance, still doesn’t entirely work — mainly because it’s obvious that what’s plaguing the Martian Queen really only exists as a narrative device for Saga’s personal redemptive arc in the first place. Suffice it to say that there are imaginative concepts lurking unfulfilled, deep within this tale, that deserved more than the ghost of a chance.