Mankind has suffered multiple world wars and the two most powerful nations remaining on Earth are mired in a cold war. A space mission launched with the hopes of turning Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, into a habitable space for humans. But the mission went dark soon after the lone pilot, Minerva Cusk, apparently crash landed. However, a few years later, in 2472, Minerva’s distress beacon activates. Suddenly, the joint space program between the Fédération and Dimokratía rekindles, financed by the wealthy Cusk family. And leading the mission is Ambrose Cusk, Minerva’s younger brother.
Ambrose’s mission, however, is not going as smoothly as he hoped. For one thing, he’s suffered an accident that left him incapacitated and without memories of the launch itself. That last point is cause for some concern because as he quickly tries to get back into the rhythm of his mission to Titan, the on-board OS indicates that Ambrose is not alone. In fact, Ambrose’s own Fédération ship—called the Endeavor—is actually paired with an exact replica of itself: a Dimokratía ship called the Aurora. There’s even a Dimokratía spacefarer named Kodiak Celius on board. Like Ambrose, Kodiak can’t remember the launch. Hurtling through space, though, Ambrose and Kodiak have little choice but to perform the necessary tasks that keep their dual-ship, the Coordinated Endeavor, operational. In the course of their duties, they encounter conflicting data that pits the reality they know against the facts they uncover with their own eyes and ears. Thrown together by the direst of circumstances, Ambrose and Kodiak will have to rely on one another if they want to get to the bottom of the mystery: what, exactly, is the mission on which they have been sent? But deep in space at the edges of the galaxy, there are no guarantees of their survival.
Eliot Schrefer offers a stunning tale set far into the future and featuring two young adults struggling to make sense of their mission as described by the OS guiding their ship. Instead of chapters, the book is separated into six parts of unequal length. The first half of the book details how Ambrose wakes on the ship soon after launch and how gradually he builds bridges with Kodiak, the “only game in town.” As the story develops, the reader follows along as Ambrose and Kodiak uncover one mystery after another: whose blood is inside the engine room? Where are the external radio signals coming from? Why can the OS predict solar flares that knock out communication with mission control, but not life-threatening levels of radiation? The real mystery of the mission Ambrose and Kodiak have been sent on gets delightfully set up in the first part.
When the second part begins around the half-way point, it feels like a jolt…details we learned in the last part feel somehow “off.” As a reader, I grasped at least a part of the meta-story involved. So at the conclusion of the second part’s all-bitter-no-sweet end, I was primed for the remaining four parts. As the sequence of events unfolds over these different parts of the book, though, I got a deeply satisfying story of two young men coming to grips with their situation and their relationship. I will say the romance aspect seems to fall distinctly on the slow burn side, but again, as the story builds, there is mounting evidence for ever-deepening feelings shared between Ambrose and Kodiak.
If that all sounds…vague, well, let’s just say I am not even referencing a very famous movie that incorporates a similar theme for fear of spoiling how the story unfolds for other readers. Suffice to say that the way this story builds on itself was a thrill to read. Each part presents more and/or different details that deepen our understanding of Ambrose and Kodiak. They also build the relationship there, but it’s fun to think how and why Ambrose and Kodiak are even able to build a relationship.
Our two main characters are seventeen (Ambrose) and eighteen (Kodiak). Despite their youth, they’ve spent their lives training for a mission like this. Except Ambrose’s and Kodiak’s upbringings could not be more different. For starters, their home nations are in the midst of a cold war. Their joint mission may help thaw the relationship somewhat, but that doesn’t mean they can simply set aside the values they were raised with. As Ambrose tries to learn more about Kodiak, he asks Kodiak how he got a scar on his arm.
“I don’t remember the fight very well. By the end my arm was broken, but the hand at the end of that broken arm still held the key [that meant I won the fight].”
“You fought hard enough to break your arm?”
He supports his upper arm in his other hand so he can get a better look at the scar. “I think it was technically the wreckage that broke it, but I fell into that wreckage because Celius Li Qiang had me in a headlock and was drowning me, so yes, you can say it got broken in the fight.”
I cough. “I want you to know that even though my exams in my training were mostly essays, some of them were very hard.”
The book is peppered with little vignettes of these two interacting with each other. They share memories, discuss theories about the true nature of the mission, and worry about what the startling physical evidence they discover that indicates what they think is the truth might actually be subterfuge. With each new part of the story, a little more of the truth comes out. The readers basically know what’s going on (but not necessarily where it’s going) by the end of the second part. Ambrose and Kodiak, however, don’t truly figure it out until part five—the second to last part and, personally, the most satisfying and second most heartbreaking part for me. (BUT! The story overall definitely has a happily ever after!!!)
The Darkness Outside Us is a breathtaking story that creatively uses repetition, doubt, and questionably reliable narration to fabulous effect. The limited setting of a spacecraft heightens the emotions and the drama, but it also focuses the action. I found it fairly easy to connect events from the various parts of the book together to draw my own conclusions about what kind of mission Ambrose and Kodiak are on. Our two main characters are an absolute delight. I read them as nuanced and variously flawed, rich with their own experiences and individual voices. Each part of the book showcases a slightly different aspect of the same character—and in the end, everything comes together because that’s what it was designed to do. I unreservedly recommend this one to anyone who likes books.