Review: Made in His Image by Jeff Stoner
Made in His Image is a sexy space adventure featuring a cast of likeable characters and a detailed sci-fi setting. An exciting beginning for the Reversed Black Maria series!
Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Made in His Image. I encourage you to check it out!
Disclaimer: This book contains some explicit content. We discuss it in this review, and you can always consult our stance on such issues here.
This review contains spoilers.
Made in His Image Publisher Description:
Even on the lawless edge of known space, it should have been easy for a highly trained undercover agent of the Ord Lex to obtain a spaceship. And so it was for Agent Rikhard Largo.
The beautiful and slightly mad Raina Von Ekaterinburg hired him on sight to guide her to legendary Valhalla, a star system that appeared on no charts and probably didn’t exist. Together, they blazed a trail across the uncharted Far Outbye, each with a very different goal in mind. It never occurred to Largo that Raina might find hers.
But then, she did.
In short order Largo discovered that everything he thought he knew was a lie. The human race was not alone in the universe, but shared the galaxy with the Arzenekoi, strange, thieving entities that make their home in the spaces between the stars.
Valhalla was as real as explosive decompression, and his new captain was an indestructible killing machine with an appetite for alien hearts. Unfortunately, Largo had already fallen for her. Worst of all, he’d met her Uncle Jørgen. After that, there was no turning back.
Enter the universe of Reversed Black Maria, where the Black Queen always wins her trick. But who dares discard her?
Follow Jeff Stoner:
Start a Business Relationship
Made in His Image opens with a typical edge-of-space agreement in a bar between a rich client and a disreputable scoundrel. But the protagonist Rikhard Largo is neither party. Right out the door, this creates a far more interesting dynamic for the scene.
Largo is not forced into the uncomfortable position of establishing a Han Solo reputation, the rich client can be irritated instead of intimidated, and the hero can deal with the villain. The characters’ emotions drive the dialogue. Nothing is slowed by a too-relaxed cool guy or boring and untrustworthy self-introductions. The protagonist’s action sets up his proactive methods in an exciting way, while also establishing how the female lead will react to him.
Most importantly, the reader does not have to be subjected to a main character whose unfortunate moral outlook has some redeeming nobility enabled in his grimy surroundings by how cool and tough he is or which must be discovered through character growth over the course of the story.
Credibility and Competence
Instead, Agent Largo has a job. The Ord Lex group is dubious from the beginning by its secretive nature, but it quickly establishes for the reader that Largo has responsibilities and follows through on them—an attractive look for a male lead.
His initial goal is noble and makes his association with Raina a natural move. He lies, but the reader finds these lies forgivable. They are almost exclusively related to his job with Ord Lex and his motivations related to that job, which are secretive by necessity. Otherwise, he tells the truth, even about his backstory. This curates a sense of trustworthiness with the reader, if not initially with the other characters.
Largo is also competent. The early scenes quickly establish that he has skills, including combat skills, but their initial use humanizes rather than legendizes him. These scenes demonstrate that he is someone you want on your side—justifying his place next to the powerful female lead—but that he won’t always come out the victor. This last is important for creating tension; when the reader believes either outcome is possible, how can they put the book down!?
The protagonist is typical of the care put into the whole cast. Each is thoughtfully introduced and developed. Stoner uses chapters set in the past, in various locations, to great effect here, allowing the reader to get a different perspective without feeling like they are head-hopping. Each of these chapters reveals a little more about Raina and how she intersects with the lives of the others, which makes for a compelling and concise story overall.
Hard Sci-fi Descriptions
It is high time I get to discussing the science fiction in this space story! There is definitely an edge of hard sci-fi here. The descriptions of the ships and the technology are clearly visualized. I loved the ship Questing Beast. Stoner’s descriptions managed to make it as dear as other iconic sci-fi vessels.
The technology and “space-stuff” had fun terms and mystery elements, too, like the spooky engines. At first the terminology felt overwhelming, superfluous, and inane. However, they were used consistently by the characters and often explained as the story progressed until they became familiar. It tended to make the setting more alive and exciting as a rule.
Sex and Sexuality
A disclaimer here is appropriate: this story contains the most explicit content of the works we’ve reviewed to date. If you are interested in our attitude towards sex and other content concerns, you can read about it here.
Raina is a walking teenage male fantasy woman. Every description of her emphasizes her body, which she is clearly very comfortable with. She is also very, shall we say, liberated. She has no qualms having sex with the men she likes.
Raina does not have sex with Largo in this story, although there is a vivid dream in the beginning and a later scene that reflects it. However, the sexual tension between the two of them is maintained throughout by the very real possibility.
The sex and sexuality have a very tangible purpose beyond tension-building and titillation.
Raina is physically big and powerful. Her size, strength, and wildness have the potential to overshadow Largo’s masculinity. Instead, they push him to measure up to her passion and to step up when she needs help.
It would be really easy for Raina to become a modern Mary Sue of the Marvel variety: a woman defeminized into power. However, the emphasis on her body, her fancy clothes, her sexuality makes it impossible to separate her power and her feminine nature.
Furthermore, Raina’s sexuality is not connected with a thematic discussion. There is no larger point about “girl power” or “women’s liberation.” Stoner is not making a case for the justification of Raina’s behaviors in our world. Rather, the physical nature of the female lead becomes closely tied with her character: she is passionate, headstrong, and proud. She isn’t right about everything.
Made in Someone’s Image
Made in His Image has some tantalizing thematic threads that will be interesting to trace as the series progresses. Unfortunately, most of this plays out in the third part of the story “Imago Dei,” so this is a spoiler-heavy section!
First, there is the understated presence of a creator God, referred to as “the One” by Raina’s Uncle Jørgen. However, He is not a character in the events of the story. Instead, there is a mythology of Watchers who created a sort of lesser deity to change their fate.
It is this deity that Jørgen explains he crafted Raina to mirror: “You are the vessel of Almah the divine feminine, who I made in [Almash’s] image.” He himself is the vessel of Orgia, the weapon Almash made from his shadow (very Jungian), and Raina must consume his heart in order to become a complete goddess. This Raina refuses to do, but Jørgen is confident that it is her destiny to accept someday.
The implications here are inexplicit, since the repercussions of Raina’s choice are not clear in this story. Does the Biblical meaning to be made in God’s image have implications here? How does that original image layer with that of Almash’s image for Raina? The imagery of eating the flesh and blood of a loved one and a deity is certainly visceral, but it also bears resemblance to the Eucharist. And finally, what about Largo, who we know is a clone and therefore made in another’s image himself?
Check Out Made in His Image!
Made in His Image is a driving sci-fi tale that interweaves well-crafted characters, an intriguing sci-fi world, enigmatic religious imagery, and a sensual romance all into an exciting adventure. I’m eager to see where The Reversed Black Maria series is headed next!