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Review: Refuge by J J Blacklocke

November 12, 2020

A novice translator attending a diplomatic mission aboard an orbital space station must navigate this entirely new world of trade politics as well as her own grief, when she discovers her homeworld has been destroyed and its people are forever gone.

  • Published: Aethon Books (10 November, 2020)
  • Cover art: Tom Edwards Design (artwork), Steve Beaulieu (design)
  • Special specs: Intriguing alien cultures, cultural focus, fascinating worldbuilding that extends beyond the book
  • Readers I’d gift it to: Those who thrive on cultural worldbuilding, cultural exchanges, love reading about science fiction species, and are drawn curious by galactic trade politics.

*I received a free copy of this book via the author which has in no way impacted my honest review.

Refuge cover

Where do you believe true strength comes from? Power, control, kindness, vulnerability?

J J Blacklocke’s latest release, Refugetries to answer this question through a cultural lens, shaping a thrilling story of resilience in the face of profound loss and, perhaps more objectively, preservation in the face of genocide.

The orbital station of Tradepoint sets the backdrop for this first book in The Tradepoint Saga, a sprawling world that acts as a temporary haven for a panoply of alien cultures brought together by one major goal: trade.

Trade is the core of Tradepoint and the subsistence of many a culture in the galaxy. By making this the focus of their novel, author wonder duo J J Blacklocke have built a venue every type of reader will love to journey to. It’s no easy feat to widen constricting spaces such as a lonely space station into more expansive experiences, but Tradepoint broadens horizons with each meeting, opening up Blacklocke’s world to us through its myriad of cultures. 

Between the Beng, Hensch, Vennans, Shodekekeen, and more, there are about a dozen of alien races to greet in the story, and although the Vennans take up the greater part our attention since the POVs belong only to them, it’s exciting to get to catalog each quirk, trade specialization, and characteristic of the alien races Blacklocke constructed. Some races specialize in fabrics. Others are prized for their spices. Some even thrive in making electronics (this is space, after all). Each species brings something indispensable and unique to Tradepoint, and I found this concept of a galactic trade market fascinating.

Most of this cataloguing of each race’s speciality is made through the cultural exchange between the Vennans and the other civilizations and it’s through the trade of specific items that we get to imagine what the other species’ worlds and traditions are like. 

Trade truly is the hub through which we know this world and its people. The worlds within this bustling space station are so vast that the authors even expanded them beyond the pages of the book in their amazing website that almost reads like a video game artbook. 

From the authors’ website: The Hesch, one of the trading alien races in Refuge. The Hesch are a tall, enigmatic, gaunt, bird-like race of traders.
Artist: Federico Cimini

There were parts of the plot itself that did not manage to eclipse the world, for me. Sometimes events that have just recently transpired in the story are again relayed to every detail. This can prove advantageous for readers who need a bit of a reminder but at times read as repetitive, especially when it came to characters repeating to other characters what had earlier taken place between them. I was also a bit disheartened by the way Gredin’s initial vulnerability played out and by the end felt slightly disconnected from her.

Maybe it was my overly-excited expectations when she was initially described as someone “who felt too much”. As the story moved forward, it seemed to me as if Gredin made less to no choices. Perhaps it was her rapid decline of flawed “humanity” in place of impervious perfection that may not have made her the most appealing character to me in the long run, even as I wondered if her transformation wasn’t an exploration on the consequences of sorrow, which is quite interesting. 

Gredin may be the clockwork, but though she is undoubtedly the driving force behind the story’s progression and the decisive link in all its exchanges, she’s not the only one telling the story.

Blacklocke crafted their POV characters to be important members of the Vennans households  (something akin to clans). First Speaker, First Traveler, Historian, First of Memory, etc, it is thanks to them all and their relevant roles in trade politics that we get front seats to this expansive world. 

The Vennans are an absorbing race by themselves, almost a transcendent species that are ruled by a cosmic force they call the Power. In life, the Power grants gifts, in death, Vennans return to its Source. 

By using their inner Focus and Control, Vennans can teleport between places, transverse the Rivers of this Power across the galaxy, and even separate matter (Gredin uses this skill once to clean her dress of a drink stain, which uh, my clumsy self needs this ability!). This added almost a magic system to the story, and a “fantasy feel” that I was very glad about because I love intersectionality and ambiguity in stories!

Making Gredin te Balamont a translator showed the reader not only the vital importance of language when creating relationships but an entire new side to power. “The translator” may not be the first choice of many who are asked who the most important person in a room of diplomats is, but Refuge opens up many doors to that discussion.

I loved this cultural exploration, which was quite subtle at times, and not in a way many are accustomed to. SFF stories that deal in politics are usually all about court intrigue and warring dissent. You will not find such themes in Refuge, at least not in their traditional exposition. 

All the races on Tradepoint appear to have achieved a certain, if at times entirely reluctant, harmony, and what dissent there is is not one solved in battlefields. Instead, cultures come together in celebration and wonder of each other’s differences, and I found every interaction exciting.

Blacklocke wraps all this up by ending Refuge in a tense, frightful closing to this first book. From the first pages we know Gredin’s world has been destroyed and Tradepoint allows only temporary residences for business purposes. With their home gone and no place in the galaxy, how will the Vennans survive?

Being a first installment in a trilogy (or should I say quadrology, since the authors are making a prequel available through their newsletter?), Refuge leaves many questions unanswered, and entices readers towards the next step in this exciting space adventure.

Ps. I’d also like to point out that the audiobook is currently free on Audible, and I think it’d be an amazing experience if you read the book in audio, since we’re talking bustling space station! If you do so, lmk how it goes!