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Killing Gravity by Corey J. WhiteThree stars

Buy from IndieBoundMariam Xi is a voidwitch, transformed into an experimental posthuman weapon with telekinetic powers so strong, she can crush spaceships like so much wadded up tissue and hurl asteroids at any foe who hasn’t the good sense to get out of her way. All this transforming was done by an evil militaristic lab with the awesomely unsubtle name of MEPHISTO, and I must say, there’s something rather comforting about the idea of a universe where villains just openly give themselves villainous names due to a fuck-giving deficit. MEPHISTO. SPECTRE. HYDRA. Legion of Doom. The Tories. I mean, confident villains would own it, wouldn’t they? Just come right out and announce you’re the bad guys and you don’t care who knows!

Killing Gravity is Corey White’s publishing debut, with this novella and a couple of sequels picked up by TorDotCom when they had their doors open to unsolicited submissions. It’s tight as a drum, paced for maximum visceral impact, and wastes not a word as it advances its plot. Mariam, or Mars, has escaped MEPHISTO’s clutches with the aid of her only friend, fellow experimentee Sera, whom Mars saw gunned down as her escape pod jettisoned. As the novella opens, Mars, accompanied only by her little alien kitty cat Seven, has just sent a bounty hunter on to his great reward, after which she’s rescued by the space tug Nova, captained by the gender-neutral Squid, and crewed by a couple of ex-soldiers, Trix and Mookie.

Discovering something rather shocking about who sent the bounty hunter after her, Mars dashes off to find the truth, even as MEPHISTO’s soldiers, led by this dude Briggs (who really ought to go “Bwa-ha-ha-ha-haaa!” more, because why not?), are coming after her with everything they’ve got.

The story delivers on action, in spades. Don’t examine the goofball plot too closely, or you’ll wonder why MEPHISTO, presumably knowing full well they’re chasing an X-Woman of their own making with the power to fling spaceships and soldiers about like so many Legos, sends lots of them after her anyway. Or why, if there’s a simple post-hypnotic phrase that shuts her powers down like a light switch, it’s almost never spoken.

White creates likable characters in the crew of the Nova (though few readers, I think, will be reminded of Firefly, as the book wants), and he even makes Mars sympathetic, tough but not lacking humanity. Still, if all this X-Men stuff sounds a bit too comic booky to you, that’s because it is, and Briggs is never more than a stock bad guy with no substance to speak of. I was entertained plenty by Mariam’s saga, but there could have been much more in the way of nail-biting tension. As it stands, the climactic battle is forced to rely more on carnage than suspense to seal the deal. But White is good at most of his scenes of character interaction, and there’s never a dull moment despite all the liberal borrowing of elements from comics, ’80s cyberpunk and SF cinema. In fact, you’re most likely to come away from Killing Gravity thinking it would make a pretty decent movie on Netflix.

Followed by Void Black Shadow.