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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 12 February 2014
Deep within the oceans of watery, ice-covered planet Ilmatar lies a deep-sea laboratory built by humans and full of scientists. Their mission is to study and absolutely not interfere with the native species of Ilmatarans, a sentient blind lobster-like race that lives on the ocean floor, farming algae and fish and harvesting the mineral-rich vents. This peaceful co-existence (founded on ignorance on one side and curiosity on the other) is strictly monitored by a third species, the offworld Sholen. If the Sholen were to learn that humans had made their presence known to the Ilmatarans then they would force them off the planet, or worse.

It's unfortunate, then, that Henri Kerlerec, an adventurer scientist and media favourite, should choose to test the invisibility of his new diving suit on a bunch of Ilmatarans. It's even more unfortunate that these particular Ilmatarans should be an expedition of scientists who cannot believe their good fortune in discovering such an oddity swimming in their environment. So curious are they, and so odd is it, that they have no choice but to rush it back to one of their labs and dissect it, bit by bit. Henri's suit camera films it all. It's not long before the Sholens are in orbit. And from then on things can only get worse. There will be war.

A Darkling Sea is a captivating first contact novel. It mixes perfectly the horrific and the fantastic by skillfully mixing the perspectives of these three species as they get to know each other kilometres below the surface of the ice-bound planet. We focus on a few representative individuals from each race - the humans Rob and Alicia, the Ilmataran Broadtail and the Sholen Tizhos and Gishora. The narrative tense alters, turning present, when depicting Broadtail's experiences, reflecting his different perspective, one built on touch not sight, and giving it an immediacy and a difference from the human perspective. In the scenes with the otter-like Tizhos and Gishora, their sensibilities dominate. In their society status is defined by sex, dominance and submissiveness. They lick everyone and everything and continually have to reassure each other with sexual play. In some ways, though, watching the behaviour of Rob and Alicia, humans are not all that different.

The three stories here are totally compelling, the narrative moving between them, pulling the reader along and moving us from one sense of sensibilities to the next. As the humans and Sholen battle each other for supremacy (with the humans using wit and intentional misunderstandings more than force), the Ilmatarans are undergoing a far more profound experience - they are becoming aware of a whole new world around them. And while the Sholen species is becoming more insular, less inclined to journey from their own worlds, the opposite is coming true for the Ilmatarans. The humans are most definitely caught in the middle and down there in this alien ocean their situation could hardly be more precarious.

Watching the species attempt to communicate with each other is a fascinating part of the novel. Broadtail and Rob in particular embark on a wonderful relationship between two animals that could hardly be more different. And yet the glimpses we have of the Ilmataran society, complete with courts and libraries, shows that there are similarities while there are other aspects, notably their method of rearing young, which are the definition of alien. But despite his strange appearance and world, Broadtail is arguably the most sympathetic character of the novel.

The true horror of the novel lies with the Sholen. But as we watch their behaviour through their eyes - some of it completely repugnant - and see them misunderstanding entirely the curious humans they by turns want to bully or please, one realises that they are being themselves just as the Ilmatarans and humans are. This is the nature of first contact - it brings with it incredible problems of communication, cultural misunderstandings, prejudices, fear and loathing.

There is darkness and light in the tone, though. The scenes of utterly repellent horror combine with the lightness of dialogue, the humour found in dire situations and the sheer enthusiasm and likeability of some of the characters. The wit is mixed with the comic appearance of the aliens - comic until they're cutting you apart, beating you to death or licking your face. Of course, humans look just as ridiculous to the other species and we are made very aware of that. The violence is countered by the sexual scenes but both felt they belonged here, nothing felt gratuitous, everything contributed to the superb worldbuilding and species building.

A Darkling Sea is one of the most enjoyable and memorable science fiction novels I've read. It has curiosities in every section. It makes the jaw drop and it makes me laugh - as well as cover my eyes. These are proper aliens. It's hard to imagine how on earth (or not on earth) these different species could even attempt to understand each other but James Cambias does a superb job of doing just that. I'm very grateful for the review copy.
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on 3 October 2014
A Darkling Sea is a science fiction novel about scientists and explorers. They are exploring a moon, covered in a thick layer of solid ice, with a liquid, bittercold ocean underneath. There are three sets of scientists: humans, there to study the native life forms, native creatures, researching their own world, and another alien species, coming to tell the humans off for violating a space treaty that prohibited them from interacting with any intelligent aliens (which one of the explorers inadvertently did).

With a novel that has two alien civilisations at its heart, there is huge room for imagination to run wild. So I was slightly disappointed that these aliens were not, psychologically, terribly alien. The natives may be beluga-sized crustaceans with claws and feelers and pincers - but their social order and organisation and mindset is only alien around the edges. They might have different notions of nurturing the young ones, no interest in sex, and other superficial differences - but they still talk and think and interact and converse and research in ways that seem not that different from humans. In fact, it is perfectly conceivable that tribal and feudal systems on Earth could have much in common with their society. There is something interesting going on in the way they recall events and talk about the past, but it's not alien enough for my taste. The second alien species is all about sex, emotions, consensus, but they, too, could feasibly be a human society, when it comes to their own culture and psychology (and their Rousseauesque notions of noble savages).

The novel is at its best when there are culture clashes - when one group of aliens decides to research a creature they found, not realising that the creature is an intelligent character belonging to one of the other groups. Or when two aliens try to apply the most effective social pressure they can think of on a creature that is not culturally compatible with their approach. Such scenes are darkly funny and mischievously delightful.

There are language / communication barriers, and culture clashes, but ultimately, we have three species, all having two genders (males and females), all featuring heroes who have an interest in researching / finding out information (and all featuring antagonists who are more inclined towards violence and warfare), all having good, clear reasons for everything they do, all motivated by things that human can understand and relate to.

It's undoubtedly a pleasant read. It's never boring, and entertaining throughout. But it did not make a huge impression one me.

3.5/5 Stars
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on 22 May 2014
This is a very good read. One of those books that pulls you into the story and it all comes alive in you mind. Highly recomended for those who enjoy a good science fiction story with some good science facts on the side .
It takes place under the ice of a distant planet in a realistic universe with the facts and consequences in good order. There is a political game with two well described alien species and humanity and it gives an interesting perspective of various standpoints.
The book reads a bit like a thriller, being rather fast paced, which is quite nice but I'd preferred a bit more flesh on the bones and a less abrupt ending to give it a fifth star.
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on 19 January 2015
Up there with the best scifi of 2014, very little tops this impressive debut. Well-written, providing enough detail to keep things scientifically plausible and make the aliens convincing.
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on 18 April 2014
was surprised how much I enjoyed this book. A good standalone story covering some interesting concepts. Maybe Europa is like this.
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