Richard Paul Russo's Unto Leviathan (originally published as Ship of Fools) is the story of the Argonos - a massive spaceship, floating aimlessly through the universe. The Argonos has been on the move for generations - so long that not only is its origin forgotten, but also its mission. Now, it travels from star to star, seeking a sense of purpose.
The story is told from the point of view of Bartolomeo Aguilera, the unofficial assistant to the ship's Captain. Bartolomeo is an outsider - born deformed to unknown parents - he lives in an exoskeleton of aggressively inhuman appearance. It is because of this perspective that he is so valuable to the Captain - Bartolomeo is unafraid of being unpopular.
The Captain, Nikos, is in a power struggle with the Bishop. The Church is a powerful entity on the Argonos and the Bishop is a strong and political man, with a desire to add the title of Captain to his collection. The ship's aimless wanderings have brought this conflict to a head - as the book opens, it has been 14 years since the last landfall and the thousands of people on the Argonos are all getting a little nervous.
The story opens with a focus on the political tensions about the Argonos - a revolt is brewing amongst the lower classes, the Bishop is making strange Machiavellian power plays and the Captain is rapidly losing control. As Unto Leviathan continues to unfold, the crew of the Argonos are introduced to far more sinister problems than their own apathy. As they make landfall on the planet of Antioch, Bartolomeo and the rest of the landing party discover that the original inhabitants of the world have all died in a grisly and terrible fate.
Although the internal political maneuvering of the Argonos never quite leave the spotlight, the introduction of the external mystery puts a new filter on things. A few of the players manage to put their personal ambitions aside for the good of the ship - but not many. Bartolomeo is one of these rare exceptions, but although he makes 'good' or moral decisions, the repercussions are invariably horrific. Unto Leviathan is a scrupulously neutral book - no one on the Argonos lives a charmed life.
Russo has a very quick, very simple writing style that quickly carries the reader from page to page. Long periods of time or activity can skip by quite quickly. He breaks up this pace at times with certain, unexpectedly detailed scenes - making them unusually intense. It is a tricky balance, but Russo handles it well, and the result is a book that is simultaneously a quick read and full of impact.
If there is a flaw, it is that the book raises enormous questions: the importance of history, the nature of religion, the politics of class and the convoluted ethics of first contact. Although the existence of these questions (none of which are cleanly answered) makes Unto Leviathan a richer book, it is almost too much for one novel to address. Russo balances this by giving us everything through the perspective of Bartolomeo. Bartolomeo is intelligent enough to know that understanding, much less resolving, any of these issues is impossible.
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