Devil’s Gun (2023) is Cat Rambo’s sequel to last year’s space-opera-with-chefs, You Sexy Thing. My first impulse was to label this book “fun,” but when I sat down to write this review, I had to evaluate that. It is a fun book, but for a fun book it contains a lot of sadness, distrust and bad decisions. The “fun” comes from the consequences of those decisions (in terms of conflict and action) and the strange, wonderful places Rambo takes us.
This book may contain spoilers for You Sexy Thing and mild spoilers for Devil’s Gun.
All captain Niko really wants to do is run a restaurant at a jump-gate, but post-military life isn’t working out that way for her. When You Sexy Thing ended, Niko and her crew had barely escaped death at the hands of ruthless space pirate Tubal Last. Unfortunately, Last also escaped death and is bent on revenge. Also unfortunately, Niko’s old love, Petalia, turned completely against Niko, and went on their own way without Niko. In the “win” column, the oligarch who owns the bioship You Sexy Thing agreed to “lend” it to Niko, in return for a few custom-cooked meals and stories about their adventures. As Devil’s Gun opens, Niko is going after Petalia, determined to plead her side of the story. Cracks run everywhere through the alliance of her formerly tight-knit team; Milly, a fighter and pastry chef of an avian species, betrayed the team in the first book, and right now no one trusts her. Atlanta, who was literally sent to Niko in a box, struggles to find her place and her purpose on the ship. The Thing, a living, sentient ship, has reached a developmental stage that resembles human adolescence; experimenting with creativity, self-expression, rebellion and sarcasm.
The most deeply wounded crew member is Talon, the werelion whose twin brother, Thorn, was murdered by Last. Even though Niko is monitoring Talon, not even she truly realizes how deeply Talon is damaged by this loss—and no one really remembers just how young Talon is. Talon’s acting-out and the Thing’s experiments of discovery combine to put the crew at risk more than once.
Not all the dangers come from within, though. A smart con-artist named Jezli Farren shows up, with a strange companion, Roxanne, who is a paladin. The jump-gates, artifacts left behind by a species long vanished, have begun to fail, and Jezli insists she can restart them. The Thing ends up at a failed jump-gate, and Jezli comes aboard. Another trader captain, Gnarl, an enemy of both Niko and another member of her crew, Gio, is tracking Jezli. Jezli offers Niko something she can’t refuse—a weapon that will kill Tubal Last once and for all.
I loved the complex and plausible crew interactions here. I also love Rambo’s universe, one that smoothly blends space-opera tech with magic. (Atlanta, who is a skeptic about magic, bristles when Niko refers to her as coming from a society that is “magic-poor.”) Magic is real, and is studied as a real field and discipline. As magic should, it runs by its own rules, a fact that frustrates another crew member, Lassite, who follows the Golden Path and has the gift of prophecy. Well, kind of, anyway.
The best part of the book comes toward the end, when Jezli leads them to an abandoned space moth, another type of living ship used by the same species who built the gates. The only space moths that have ever been found are dead—going inside one is just like going into any haunted or cursed ship—bad things are going to happen. That’s where Jezli’s pirate-killing weapon is, though. Niko leads an away team to the moth, and the ones who make it back are changed in ways they don’t even know yet.
The book ends with the loss of someone we have grown to like; with another complication in the battle with Last; and with a new crew member who will change the team even more. Meanwhile, the bioship struggles to learn, while refusing to give up a couple of its “hobbies.” You’d think hobbies would be benign. You’d be wrong.
Until the last third of the book, most of the struggles in Devil’s Gun are internal. I liked that, though. I like all of Niko’s team, but I think I like the ship the most, even though it’s a big problem. I’m eager to see what Niko and her crew cook up for us next.