The Cold Between by Elizabeth Bonesteel
The Cold Between is the first novel in Elizabeth Bonesteel’s CENTRAL CORPS trilogy. This military space opera focuses more on personal and romantic relationships than most in this genre do. I’m tempted to call it romantic military space opera. The publisher compares Elizabeth Bonesteel’s work to that of Elizabeth Moon and Lois McMaster Bujold. I have read both of those authors’ space operas and I can say that this comparison is inaccurate. Bonesteel is writing for the same audience, but doesn’t quite make it in this debut novel.
The prologue of The Cold Between takes place 25 years before the events of the trilogy and briefly introduces us to Kate and her colleagues on an exploratory Central Corps spacecraft called Phoenix. They are on their way back to Earth for shore leave when Phoenix suddenly explodes.
Fast-forward 25 years, and Kate’s son Greg is captaining a Central Corps ship called Galileo. Greg believes Central Corps’ pronouncement that his mother’s ship’s disaster was an unfortunate accident, but some anonymous conspiracy theorist keeps sending him clues that suggest there’s something more sinister (still) going on. Greg has some other personal tragedies going on, too, such as the impending break-up of his marriage due to his wife’s infidelity, and the frosty relationship between him and his best friend Elena, a talented engineer on his crew.
Elena’s got her own personal tragedies, too. The most recent of these is the murder of her ex-boyfriend, another crew member, while they were on shore leave. The suspect is Trey Zajec, the mysterious PSI agent she picked up in a bar the night her ex was murdered. To vindicate her current lover, and to get revenge for her former lover, Elena starts investigating the murder. Eventually Greg, Elena, and Trey start to wonder if all of these things ― the explosion of the Phoenix 25 years ago, Danny’s murder, and the attempted framing of Trey ― might actually be connected.
As I said above, The Cold Between (and the entire CENTRAL CORPS trilogy) could be classified as romantic military space opera, but I think readers who actually have some military experience will be disgusted with the laxness of Greg’s ship and crew. Their behaviors (disobeying orders, threatening and even injuring local law enforcement, stealing, lying, going AWOL, etc.) make for some nice drama, but pretty bad military comportment. I found this really difficult to believe in.
Bonesteel’s writing is serviceable but mundane, as is usually the case in military space operas. The emphasis is on the action and the mystery, not the language or world-building. In fact, the world doesn’t feel real at all. We are visiting other planets, some through a wormhole, and everything feels mundane, as if it’s all happening on Earth. Being in outer space should feel exotic.
Bonesteel’s characters are likeable but not particularly memorable. I didn’t feel a connection with any of them and was more interested in what happened to Phoenix 25 years ago than to what happened to any of these characters in the current story. The Cold Between kept me mildly entertained as I was reading it, but it’s not a book that I’ll remember five years from now, re-read, or recommend to friends. (In contrast, I do remember Bujold’s stories more than five years after reading them and I do recommend them to friends.)
The audiobook version of The Cold Between was produced by HarperAudio and read by Katharine Mangold, who has the perfect voice for this series but who made several mispronunciations, such as pronouncing the much-used word “ensign” as “en-SIGN.”
Since I have them downloaded already, I’ll read the next two books, Remnants of Trust, and Breach of Containment.
The Cold Between is a gritty mystery mixed with romance, wrapped in a space opera setting. As Kat notes, it begins with a brief prologue in which the Central Corps spaceship Phoenix is about to detonate a large bomb. One of the medical crew, Kate, scrambles to prepare for the explosion, a little distracted by thoughts of her family, especially her twelve year old son Greg. Jumping forward twenty-five years, the Central Corps spaceship Galileo, with Greg Foster as its captain, is visiting the colony planet of Volhynia, near the wormhole where his mother’s spaceship was accidentally destroyed in the explosion years ago. While Greg deals with the mystery of the still-high radiation from the explosion and a diplomatic incident involving a nomadic spacefaring group called PSI, much of his crew is enjoying shore leave. Galileo’s chief engineer, Commander Elena Shaw, unexpectedly finds an older man in a bar who she clicks with, Treiko (Trey) Zajec, and takes off with him for a long night of sex and gourmet desserts.
When they part the next morning, Trey finds the murdered corpse of Elena’s crewmate and former lover, Danny, practically on his doorstep. Trey is promptly accused of Danny’s murder and arrested. Elena ― realizing that Trey couldn’t possibly have committed the murder because he was with her the entire night and they never slept, at all ― determines to rescue him.
Oddly, Volhynia’s law enforcement still seems intent on charging Trey with the murder, ignoring the fact that there’s the real killer on the loose. As Elena, Trey, and Greg (who’s rather reluctantly dragged into this mess) dig deeper, they find that the current mystery has seemingly inexplicable ties to the twenty-five year old tragedy, the mysterious explosion of the Phoenix.
The Cold Between has some interesting main characters with solid characterization. Greg Foster and Elena have been friends for years, but their relationship is strained because Greg, who is (very unhappily) married, is nevertheless clearly developing strong feelings for Elena, who doesn’t understand why he’s been snapping at her and pushing her away. Her relationship with Trey is actually a healthy one, but might not be sustainable because of their different lives.
The unusually strong emphasis on the personalities and interpersonal relationships (not just romantic ones) is both good and bad: while it pulled me in, it also resulted in the world-building and the mystery getting somewhat short shrift. I never got a great feel for the Central Corps organization beyond bureaucracy, or for their sometime-allies, the PSI, who have a reputation as pirates despite their stated humanitarian work. Additionally, considering the Galileo has a military environment, the amount of arguing with superior officers, disregarding of orders, and near-mutiny is truly eyebrow-raising. Admittedly, it’s a different society, but that kind of culture doesn’t seem sustainable on board a ship.
It’s been some months since I finished reading The Cold Between, and while I did enjoy it quite a lot while reading it and remember the main characters and their personalities quite well, I recall very little of the nature of the mystery and its ultimate resolution. I have to agree with Kat that Bonesteel has a ways to go before she can be compared to Lois McMaster Bujold, who seems to effortlessly juggle characters, plot and setting, excelling at all. But I did get more attached to Elena, Greg and the other crew members of the Galileo than Kat did. If I continue with this series, it’ll be because I want to find out what happens with those characters.