Stardogs by Dave Freer was an entertaining sci-fi tale, and you can get a bit of an excerpt from it here at Mad Genius Club, along with a fairly in-depth review. I’ll gratuitously steal the book blurb from amazon:
The Interstellar Empire of Man was built on the enslavement of the gentle Stardogs, companions and Theta-space transporters of the vanished Denaari Dominion. But the Stardogs that humans found can’t go home to breed, and are slowly dying out.
As the ruthless Empire collapses from its rotten core outward, an Imperial barge is trapped on top of a dying Stardog when an attempted hijacking and assassination go horribly wrong. Trying to save its human cargo, the Stardog flees to the last place anyone expected – the long-lost Denaari motherworld.
Crawling from the crash are the Leaguesmen who control the Stardogs’ pilots by fear and force, and plan to assassinate Princess Shari, the criminal Yak gang, who want to kill everyone and take control of a rare Stardog for their own, and an entourage riddled with plots, poisons, and treason. But Shari and her assassin-bodyguard have plans of their own…
Stranded on the Denaari Motherworld, the castaway survivors will have to cooperate to survive. Some will have to die.
And some, if they make it to the Stardogs breeding ground, will have to learn what it means to love.
It was a good read – not great, but definitely entertaining. I think the main trouble is that there’s far too much focus on exposition of the (admittedly interesting!) science fiction concepts – the worldbuilding – rather than focus on the human drama. That’s not to say that the exposition is bad; there’s just too much of it. It’s right on the edge of my saying “All this? Should be in an appendix.” Some of it certainly could have been! I bought the book on the strength of the excerpt (you can find it at the link above) but unfortunately that scene is one of the relatively few gold nuggets of storytelling in which the conflict and protagonists are clear. It’s also part of the main plot’s backstory, as reading the book blurb would have told me (but I hadn’t read it, so my expectations were disappointed).
The major issue here is that the book is quite simply too short to support all its characters and give them the development that they needed to really come alive. A book of this length should have focused very tightly on Princess Shari and her immediate circle, with perhaps a few cutscenes to the various antagonists when necessary. Instead I got the feeling that I was left adrift in a soup of characters – some of which are fairly clearly antagonists, but no clear indicators of which of the “good” characters was the protagonist. (Or even which antagonist is the main one – same problem.) Should we care most about Shari and her assassin bodyguard? The young rider girl? Sam the street urchin turned mob enforcer? The space station stowaway? There was simply no way to tell – focus doesn’t pin itself down to anyone in particular. We’re given not enough information to “tag” a protagonist – and way too much information (backstory scenes, mostly) about characters that should be relegated to supporting roles in a book this length.
Which all boils down to TL:DR write moar! Heh. If you’re going to have political machinations between three major interstellar groups plus one mafia group, you really need to write doorstopper-length! And secondary characters’ backstories need to stay firmly in the author’s personal archives. Have any necessary information about the bit players delivered in dialogue scenes with the major characters.
The part where the crash-landed Imperial Princess’s entourage has to cross an inimical alien planet and convince an ancient AI to help them was worth the price of admission! Just make sure to write down everyone’s full name and title when they’re introduced, though, because if you’re like me, you’re going to have trouble keeping everyone straight since the author doesn’t seem to use a consistent pattern of naming the characters* during the action and some of them get hard to keep track of.
*Or I’m just that bad with names.