Discount Miracles – Book Review

I picked up a copy of Brand Gamblin’s book Discount Miracles while I was at Batlicon a few weeks ago. As a fan I was eager to check it out and started reading it right away. It’s a little on the light side page count wise, so the reading went fast. Before I get into what I think of it, conflicted is one word, let me tell you what it’s about.

This is kind of a shipwreck story and there are also elements of Gulliver’s Travels. The crew of the Jenny, an interstellar salvage ship, find themselves in a bit of a pickle when they experience extreme engine problems in a relatively unknown part of space. Faced with only a few choices, most of which would end up in either an explosion or an aimless drifting, they aim for the nearest habitable world and go for it. They find themselves setting up shop on a backwater, low tech world making the titular “miracles” to make a living while they try and repair the ship.

There’s a good amount of conflict that Brand develops. The Captain tries to keep his crew happy and occupied without revealing their origins to the locals. A conman who stowed away on the Jenny helps them in their endeavors, but may be trying to sabotage their efforts to leave. There’s also the temptation among the crew to go native. Speaking of the natives, they’re happy to burn anyone who looks like a witch, and the discount miracles the crew of the Jenny perform may qualify them as fuel. The miracles themselves, when they work, often have unforeseen political and social ramifications. That’s all a lot of good gold to mine, literarily speaking.

Ultimately though, it all seems very thin. One of the things I enjoyed about Brand’s previous works is the richness of setting and character. The sheer amount of potential for that in this world is staggering. I mentioned Gulliver’s Travels and I would have loved to see him do with the different cultures in this book what he did with the societies he set up in The Hidden Institute and Tumbler. In comparison, the pseudo-medieval European country and the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern country he shows us are almost cardboard cutouts.

The characters, primary and secondary, feel watered down. I really felt the growth that Libby and Cliffy underwent in their respective books. Some of that happens with the con man. That’s nice, since he could have easily been a cipher. I’m not sure if the lack of character development stems from the jumping around from POV character to POV character or not, but I would have liked more time in just a few heads. One character’s romance that feels tacked together, and that becomes a key plot point later. A little more time developing that would have made the reveal more resonant. A couple of the villains are muddy as well. I know that Brand can do a good scenery chewing bad guy and he can do nuanced evil too. I don’t see that here.

There are good things about the book. I was surprised a time or two. The plot is tight and well crafted. The origin of the planet they find themselves on is interesting and I’d like to know more about that. I think it would be an excellent book for the younger crowd, even though all of the characters are adults. It’s good entry level sci-fi/fantasy. I will definitely be passing it on to my daughter for her to read, as I did with Tumbler.

My biggest beef with this book is that it’s a missed opportunity to tell a much richer story and I know the author can do it. If I’d never read another Brand Gamblin book I would probably give this three and a half out of five rocket ships. Since I know he’s capable of much more I’m going to ding him a half ship for an even three. That’s hard for me to do, but an honest review is how I roll. I hope if there’s a follow up to this one, and it’s set up for a sequel, that he really nails it.