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A Darkling Sea    by James Cambias order for
Darkling Sea
by James Cambias
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2014 (2014)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

A Darkling Sea is James Cambias' debut novel and it's an impressive one! In it, he delivers two sets of unusual yet very credible alien societies; a first contact triangle; and an exciting SF adventure that I'd label as space opera except that almost all of it occurs in an alien ocean under a roof of ice a kilometer thick on the planet Ilmatar.

Our human hero is Rob Freeman, a specialist in underwater photography and drone operation, working among fellow Earth scientists at Hitode Station deep in the chilly Ilmatar ocean. They are studying the biology and ecology of the blind aliens who thrive in this undersea environment, but are committed by treaty with the Sholen (alien spacefarers with whom the Terrans have an uneasy relationship) not to let the locals know of their existence.

That intention is foiled by one of the scientists, celebrity hound Henri Kerlerec, who persuades Rob to assist him in a secret dive (using a Russian Navy stealth suit) to film the Ilmatarans up close). Unfortunately, best laid plans go awry, Kerlerec dies, and the blind aliens are intrigued by the 'four-limbed creature' that is 'full of hot bubbles', and desire to learn more.

The story's local hero is Broadtail, an Ilmataran landowner/scientist who is asked to join the Bitterwater Company of Scholars. He is one the group that encounters Kerlerec. After he loses his property and is outlawed, the Company asks him to lead an expedition to seek out the strange creature's origin.

Finally, our Sholen heroine is Tizhos, who wants to study alien life, and is a member of a Sholen mission to assess whether or not the humans have violated their treaty. Tizhos and her superior Gishora journey to Hitode Station. But though they find no evidence of wrongdoing, Sholen politics demand that the Station be closed down. When the Sholen insist on this, the humans refuse to cooperate and conflict erupts.

After Rob and a few fellow scientists (including Alicia whom he loves) leave the Station to avoid being forcibly evacuated, their situation becomes desperate - that is, until Rob and Broadtail meet.

A Darkling Sea has all the right ingredients for high SF entertainment - credible and engaging characters both alien and human; credible and comprehensible science, well balanced with plenty of action; friendship and romance; all well leavened with humor. I very much look forward to whatever James Cambias writes next.

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