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REVIEW: The Bantam – RJ Theodore

The Bantam - RJ Theodore

Genre: Sci-Fi

Reviewer: Scott

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About The Book

Ehli is an iscillian, designed in a lab to serve as a bantam, a ship custodian for a merchant crew. She imagines no future beyond the care of her starship and the quiet hours between ships spent painting in her quarters.

But when she discovers a vague clue that undermines the clear purpose of her existence, the satisfaction she once found in her simple routine dissolves into an unsettling, deadly obsession to learn the truth.

Her job is to put the needs of her ship and its crew before

her own, but every step she takes to investigate her origins—the origins of all iscillian across the galaxy—drags her away from the life she knew and deeper into danger.

But Ehli can’t ignore what she’s learned. She must know what secrets have been kept from her, and she’s willing to risk everything to uncover them.

The Review

Ehli is an iscillian, commonly called a bantam: a wonderfully flexible creature who is responsible for the upkeep of a starship, the Landor, and who can squeeze into very small spaces to make needed adjustments and repairs. Sold as part f the ship package, she’s no more than a thinking cog in a much larger machine. And yet, as Theodore paints her, she is delightful and fascinating, a whole world unto herself.

In many sci-fi shows, books and films, the aliens are very human-like – maybe they have different skin tones, or antennas, or big eyes, or all three, but they’re bipedal creatures with fingers and toes, two symmetrical eyes, and easily classifiable male/female gender.

Which is why I was so taken by the main character in The Bantam.

The book deals with two alien races – the iscillian and the xendari. Theodore only gives us a brief description of the xendari as “four-armed vertebrate sentients,” but the bantam are described in much greater detail. 

Apparently bred to work with a starship’s systems as caretakers and upgraders, these alien beings have no bones, all the better to allow them to slip into tight spaces. They use vacillating skin colors to communicate with one another, and can stretch themselves out as needed, like rubber.

Although Ehli’s vastly different from human beings, Theodore uses a few tricks to her more  relatable to us readers.

First off, the species/book name. A “Bantam” is a small breed of chicken, and little bits and pieces of the description reinforce this throughout the book – talking about her beak, her crop where she stores food until she needs it, and other little similar details give us something familiar to tack this strange creature onto. I can almost see her strutting down the halls like a giant, phosphorescent chicken, clucking happily away.

Theodore also gives Ehli very human wishes and desires: the urge to paint beautiful things. The longing for someone to call “friend.” And the pang of loss when someone close to her is murdered. These are universal themes that help bridge the gap between alien characters and readers, in this case to make Ehli memorable and relatable.

Oh and there’s another one. The protagonist’s official name is LE01 – short for Landor Engineering Oh-One. It’s a very dry, mechanical name, but in her own mind, our protagonist has renamed herself Ehli. Self-reinvention – how human is that?

Ehli discovers a secret, hidden in plain sight in the ship’s manual. It calls into question everything she thought she knew about herself and her kind’s origin, and sets her on a dangerous journey of self-discovery that will have grave consequences for Ehli and everyone around her.

The Bantam is a quick read at about 80 pages, a scintillating dive into an alien mind and a mystery at the same time. I read it with a sense of discovery and delight that I don’t feel with many books anymore. It’s also different from just about anything else I’ve read before, which is high praise. And the cover, by Galan Dara, is wonderfully evocative, and sets the tone well for the story and its glowing protagonist.  Grab a copy and settle in – I’ll bet you read the whole thing in one go. I dare you to try to put it one down!

If you enjoy The Bantam, pick up The Silent Fringe too. It starts right where The Bantam leaves off. And Theodore’s book Underway is set in the same universe.

The Reviewer

Scott is the founder of Queer Sci Fi, and a fantasy and sci fi writer in his own right, with more than 30 published short stories, novellas and novels to his credit, including two trilogies.  

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