Gay romance fiction

Review: Outcast Mine by Jamie Craig

OUTCAST MINE by Jamie CraigA flawless, visceral space opera that digs deep and dazzles

Devastating. Hypnotic. Luminous.

Featuring intensely appealing heroes, a fever-pitch plot, and delicious worldbuilding, Outcast Mine is a book by two authors (Vivian Dean and Pepper Espinoza collaborating as Jamie Craig) writing at the top of their M/M game in every way. It’s as cunning as its double-entendre title would suggest and I read it in one sitting. And when I’d finished, I flipped back to the front and read it again immediately just to dissect its efficiency and elegance.

Lest I be accused of mindless gushing, I’d like to specify my praise in case what’s working for me might not work for other readers. The skill and savvy on display here is so seamless that it deserves more than blank enthusiasm.

The novel’s setup is classic high-concept adventure in the vein of Dumas and Burroughs: In a hellpit gulag used for mining an illegal hallucinogen, a slippery human thief named Aleron and a hardnosed alien warden named Jasak come together at the worst possible time in the best possible way. Every person present is a literal prisoner and byzantine subplots braid deftly through their stories, wringing pain and truth out of our flawed heroes on almost every page and fleshing out the rich environs. Aliens that feel like aliens! Intense violence that feels purposive and authentic! Impossible choices made against impossible odds! All this in a harrowing catacomb where the low heartbeat of the “Core” thumps around the inmates like a vast Hitchcockian clock.

For starters, Aleron’s callow opportunism and Jasak’s rigid detachment immediately lay the foundation for an explosive union. They are a beautifully mismatched duo, but Craig sidesteps any lame Odd-Couple chestnuts to focus on their unsteady balance between sacrifice, honor, and survival. Both are shaped with craft that never draws attention to itself: singular voices, blistering stakes, and bold, mindful use of POV to build suspense and empathy. Wily Aleron is a crook to the marrow of his bones, in diction, calculation, sociopathy… But his thievery goes beyond the literal to less tangible loot in ways that damn and save him. Jasak, leader of the Athaki guards, manages to be a bloodthirsty alpha-barbarian without resorting to empty swagger or Neanderthal clichés.  Their slow-burn relationship is so compelling that at one point I realized I was fantasizing about being a convict in a toxic alien slavecamp. Without irony. Feel that fact.

Then the worldbuilding. Anne Lamott once said that the best writing starts with a “view the size of a postage stamp” and Craig eases the reader into the invented language, customs, and crises with laser focus. Each outlandish element appears as if under a pinpoint light that brightens and widens until the entire alien world blazes around us. Over and over, the expert use of POV did the work for me invisibly and contextually. In concrete terms that meant that I kept realizing I’d learned facts by osmosis about Athaki culture, Athess politics, and blackmarket chojal trade. From the opening moments of Aleron climbing through sludge in darkness, we absorb the environment alongside our protagonists, which deepens our empathy AND gradually widens our view of their world without fat slices of exposition cake. Clever-clever-clever!

The plotting is equally adroit. Every interaction escalates the stakes and the tension. Insults have their own story arcs and wounds have lasting consequences. A less-skillful author might have used Aleron’s infirmary stint to plant a clichéd escape attempt or to milk pathos out of the poisoned patients, but Craig folds that action into no less than four subplots involving fraternal devotion and treacherous factions seeking to overthrow the prison-mine! Every character, no matter how trivial, follows a meaningful arc that affects and is affected by everyone else until the entire colony boils with Claudian machinations driving it towards catastrophe. All that without getting wanky, derivative, or confusing. Take THAT, George Lucas!

Oh yeah. And the intimacy? Tender and filthy, thanks. Craig forces predatory heroes trapped in a lethal environment to walk a knife’s-edge between lust and violence only to shock us with sweetness. Brilliant. The sex is subtle and surprising and motivated without exception. Trust is earned and tested. More proof of the skill at work: Jasak’s Athaki bloodlust and Aleron’s wounds motivate an intensely erotic licking scene which filters through all subsequent erotic (or bloody!) encounters… the heroes must negotiate bedding and body heat in their grim pit… Jasak’s blood hunger overlaps thirst for other salty fluids… and the sex manages to stay alien AND erotic throughout which is no small feat, yo.

(n.b. I would pay a lot to see this novel adapted for film, even ultra-low-budget, because the story is so gritty and dynamic it could weather exploitation. Come back to the five-and-dime, Regent Entertainment, Regent Entertainment.)

Did I have quibbles? I suppose. Because it’s action-adventure, the angst is more plot-based and there’s too much incident for any tears to be jerked, which might irk some folks. I felt that the crime for which Jasak tortured himself seemed too noble and justified to warrant his inflexible masochism; a darker crime might have pushed his pathos further. While I reveled in the ghoulish comeuppance for Snod’s scheming, I felt that for about 20 pages he got lost in the whiteknuckle shuffle and that the critical “Core Key” seemed a MacGuffin-y afterthought. Also, a few times I wanted another page on a fascinating minor character. But I can’t exactly fault Craig for making the minutia so addictive that I wanted an extra scoop from a novel that is 400 pages long!

Outcast Mine is a joy to read. It is an astonishing gay romance and a rip-roaring old-school space opera unafraid to sidle over to Herbert and Chalker. This is the kind of impeccable genre fiction that makes crappy M/M writing look embarrassing by contrast, a book that hacks should fear and readers should cherish. Which is another way of saying this is genre writing that strengthens the genre. The craft here, the bone-deep skill and exuberance and wit of these two women writing as Jamie Craig, makes this novel a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in romantic sci-fi.

There are obviously MANY more stories in these stars and I’ll buy any Craig’s planning. Funny thing: because everyone seems to be pumping out a series right now, I was almost about to say I can’t wait to see the sequels to Outcast Mine, but that’s kind of misleading. Much as I’d love to revisit this cosmos, even to check in on Aleron and Jasak, this book might be complete as it is. Dunno. What I really meant to say was that I can’t wait to read the next book by Jamie Craig, regardless of the universe it occupies