This book gave me a deep nostalgic feeling for the works of Jo Clayton. (There might also be some of Niven’s Known Space in the flavor, but I’m mostly reminded of the patchwork anomaly worlds and environments within Clayton’s paracosm.) Despite the feeling of nostalgia, it was a difficult book to read due to deep knee jerk hatred for certain plot points and social mores. (In other words, I was in a bad position of loving some of the characters while wanting most of their world/universe/society to die in a blaze of napalm. This is not a comfortable feeling to have, most of the time.)
The basic back story is that an alien race called the nefrim has apparently decided to wipe out the entire human race. The human race is fighting back mostly by using genetically enhanced humans known as “Reds” to fight for them. The Reds undergo a vicious training program that renders them almost completely incapable of integrating with normal human society. Our heroes are one Mikhail Volkov and his not-quite-foster brother Turk, a Red that acts as the commander/overseer for his Red crew. When a ship called Fenrir, long thought lost to a “subspace jump” reappears–and looks like it had spent a lot of time in an ocean somewhere Mikhail is sent off to try to discover where the ship went.
“Where the ships that disappear go,” turns out to be a sort of dimensional nexus called “The Sargasso” by its human inhabitants. It’s a vast sea where star ships built by who knows how many alien species crash and eventually form islands. Mikhail and Turk end up crashing their ship, and get separated due to sabotage on the part new members of the Red team who decide to try to kill Turk (apparently not realizing that this will not make them “top cat” just dead at the hands of Mikhail when he finds out). A ship captain named Paige Bailey eventually rescues Turk, and a wary friendship forms. Mean while, Mikhail desperately tries to keep his ship afloat and work on repairs while trying to find him. Both brothers become closely involved with local politics and the discovery of what caused the Fenrir to reappear in normal space.
The “local politics” involves a longstanding feud between two human communities. One which treats genetically enhanced “Blues” and “Reds” as human, and the other, which continues to treat them as animals. It is interesting to see both Mikhail and Turk get bowled over by the differences in a society where civil rights are an active issue. One difference they encounter is that the culture also is fundamentally different in the way it treats the “Blue” genetically enhanced humans. In “normal” space, Blues are primarily used as living sex toys, and are brainwashed from an early age, much like the Reds to have “animalistic” behaviors. In the Sargasso, it’s been discovered that Blues are very, very good diplomats and tend to be gifted linguists. This gives them a very high status in the community that treats genetically enhanced humans like people. (There is however a certain assumption that Blues will “put out” during the course of negotiations.) Another difference is that there are female Reds (“Reds” in normal space are all-male and cloned/produced in batches), something that causes a certain amount of difficulty due to someone under Mikhail’s command being a moron.
The “brothers” are eventually reunited, discoveries are made, crises averted, and mysteries solved up to and including why the nefrim have such a huge desire to wipe out the human species. I enjoyed the adventure aspects of the story, and certain aspects of both Mikhail and Turk’s journeys and discoveries. I also enjoyed the rocky beginnings of romance between Turk and Paige (complicated because of mutual misunderstanding and a great deal of the prejudice Turk had absorbed from his environment). I wasn’t quite sure of how to react to the happy reunion between Mikhail and his father. (I wasn’t able to “buy” that the father would be all that concerned for the personal welfare of either his son or Turk. Mikhail because of a horrific incident that resulted in the death of Mikhail’s baby brother, and especially in the case of Turk, who he allowed to be severely beaten and abused by his “trainer” until Mikhail put a stop to it.) With that said, I’m kind of hoping for a sequel where more of the issues brought up within the story are resolved.