Cascade Failure Review: Serenity Rides Again

By H. M. White on


L.M. Sagas’ Cascade Failure is a romp and a thrill ride. It starts gently, but it accelerates the whole way. It’s misleading too. I’d thought I was near the climax, as tensions rose and plot arcs came to fruition, until I checked the page number and realized that I was maybe halfway through. That was a happy discovery.The jacket copy compares this to Firefly, but I think it could be even more specific. This isn’t just Firefly, this is Serenity.

A small crew of misfits and occasional-do-wells (or whatever you call ne’er-do-wells with hearts of gold) confront powers far greater than themselves and struggle to do what is right. Sagas even includes a grumbly and rough veteran and a mechanic who loves the softer, greener, glowier things in life. Jal, a battered, bedraggled, and traumatized survivor struggling to return home after being branded a deserter, searches for any ship that will take him back to the core systems and the family he left behind years ago. He finds more than he bargained for when he accidentally hitches a ride aboard a ship with an AI captain, a medic/engineer who doesn’t see much difference between her two jobs , and an old “friend” of the “don’t make me shoot you” variety. But their smaller concerns must be set aside when their ship responds to a distress call and finds a freshly dead planet and a programmer who knows how it happened.

See? Serenity! Okay, it’s not actually Serenity—that’d be copyright infringement, and Sagas deserves credit for the characters that grace the pages of Cascade Failure—but I think you understand.This is a solid debut novel from Sagas, full of action and drama and intrigue to make your head spin. I loved it. I admit, I’m a sucker for space adventure and this was right up my alley. If you like space adventure too, you probably don’t need to read any more of this review. Just go get the book as soon as you can.

Cascade Failure’s increasingly frenetic pacing and delicious drama reminded me in many ways of M.K. England’s The Disasters. While The Disasters is definitely YA, Cascade Failure was clearly written for a more adult audience. Despite that, Cascade Failure still feels like it has a similar attention to the internal emotional struggles of its characters in a way that I associate more with YA than with non-YA science fiction. Much of the newer sci-fi that I enjoy pays more attention to the emotional lives of its characters, and that feels less rare than it used to. But different authors do it differently—obviously—and I’ve come to associate certain flavors of emotional struggle, and certain ways of portraying internal conflict, with specific sub-genres. Cascade Failure’s emotional struggles feel like those of a more adult thriller or sci fi novel, but the means of portraying them feel like they borrow from a YA sensibility. 

There was one glaring flaw in this book to my eyes. For whatever reason, Cascade Failure is written with references to our present day culture. Some references are more explicit than others. Sometimes the references are a modern meme structure (Notting Hill’s “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a…”). Sometimes they’re an explicit mention of a piece of culture that has no context in the distant future. There’s only one mention of a Gregorian calendar date, for example, and it’s used to refer to Frogger for goodness sake, without any hint as to whether the Gregorian calendar is still in common use or why anyone in the distant space-future would still know anything about Frogger. These references pulled me out of the fiction repeatedly as I struggled to understand why or how the references might still exist in a future that is untold centuries (even millennia) distant from our own time.

My frustration with those references was tied to how much I liked the book. If I hadn’t been deep in it, happily enjoying it, being pulled out by those references wouldn’t have bothered me so much.And my frustration with those references didn’t change my opinion of Cascade Failure. The book is good. Yes, I would have cut or replaced those references if I could have, but this book balances solidly on the “yes, more please” side of the scales.

So if you like space adventure, read this. If you want more Firefly or Serenity, try this. If you wish Becky Chambers wrote fast-paced action adventure and intrigue with dramatic gunplay, try this. And if out-of-context modern references throw you like they throw me, know that you’ll hit a few speed bumps on your way through this very fun ride.

Cascade Failure will be published March 19, 2024.

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