Hjalti Danielsson is no stranger to EVE Online. He has written eighty short stories, two fanfest-performed plays, and now a novel, all in the name of the increasingly popular sci-fi MMO. Known as CCP Abraxas when cashing dev team checks, Danielsson – it goes without saying – has explored myriad facets of EVE life. It is part and parcel of his job to fill out aspects of the sociopolitical atmosphere often absent from in-game mission text. Given the fact that his hand has served as the architect to so much of the EVE universe, it’s a wonder that his novel doesn’t relish more in the worlds he’s created.
The Burning Life, the second novel to emerge from the seven-year-old MMO, thrusts two protagonists into a limelight unaccustomed to their form: a pirate and a mission agent. In-game, pirates are non-player characters serving as respawning hecklers and all-around bad guys; to a player, little is known of them beyond the acquisition of a target lock and a blinding explosion. Mission agents broker jobs for players; and little is known of them beyond their function as loot dispensation machines. This is where the Burning Life comes in, breathing--ahem, life
into the lungs of two important yet rarely examined personas within the EVE universe.
The pirate in question is Drem, a member of the Blood Raiders, a religiously devout faction of the Sani Sabik people. The mission agent is Ralea, a party girl struggling to hold down her breakfast as well as her nine-to-five. Thus begins an arduous, disconnected undertaking to unite this key master and gate keeper in the name of revenge, a dish that--by the end of the novel--is indeed served cold.
The story begins amidst the wreckage of Drem’s deep-space mining colony. Drem, the sole survivor, crawls out from under a capsuleer pilot’s haphazard but nonetheless devastating attack. Drem rails against a technicality preventing his murdered brother’s name from being entered into the Blood Raiders’ Book of the Dead, which is an obvious problem for a faithful member of the congregation. His only misguided option at this point is to put the price of every lost life on the head of the capsuleer pilot that destroyed his colony. Drem partners up with an older man that inexplicably fails to provide mentorship or serve as a cautionary tale, and a woman that’s as vaguely promiscuous as she is dull to converse with. This lackluster trio skitters across several pirate nations, unconvincingly currying favor with wealthy and influential leaders from the dark side of the galaxy.
Drem and Ralea's trajectories sharply contrast one another, and mapping the differences may be an attentive reader’s rare delight during the Burning Life's shoddy arc. Drem designs a personal, emo-tainted scheme of vengeance couched in hey-we're-not-all-terrorists societal justice. Ralea, on the other hand, flees from both an excess of drug-addled vice and white-collar crime, while flirting with female empowerment and lesbianism. It's a blatant metaphor for the West versus the Middle East, if the West and the Middle East were oblivious to one another's presence until the final two chapters of the book.
Don’t let that fool you, however, as the character portraits themselves rarely cultivate empathy. Drem and Ralea add up to little more than vehicles for exploring Wikipedia-like entries to barely touched-upon cultures. People are generalized with convenient labels, actions never speak louder than words, love and hate are reduced to hugs and evil grins, and, except for when Danielsson gets his hands on more sci-fi horror backdrops like Sansha's Nation, then settings rarely bloom into fully-realized locales. A reader can’t help but feel that they’re only skipping over the surface of an overly-ambitious pond.
Were Danielsson capable of a fevered, poetic writing style like that of, say, Conan's Robert E. Howard, then the disparate chapters might find a more favorable light. Instead, the majority of Danielsson’s missive is rapt with needless foul language, amateurish word duplication, and lazily-concocted character profiles. He takes pendulous strides between over-narration and weak dialogue, which is all the more disappointing since he’s clearly invigorated at the start of each new chapter. He manages a plodding pace right up until the unexpectedly stunning climax, but still sounds like he’s rushing due to a lack of time or energy.
Given a narrower scope, it’s likely that either Drem’s or Ralea’s story could’ve received the attention it deserved. Too bad Danielsson exposed his short-story roots through impatience and only a tacked-on dovetail to the branched storyline.