This is one of a continuing series of reviews of Traveller Fiction, looking at some of the fiction that influenced Traveller, was influenced by Traveller, or is actually set in the Traveller universe.
In 1995, GDW put out two-thirds of a trilogy of fiction books focusing on The New Era. The third book was not published by the time GDW went of out of business, and was apparently lost forever, until it was published this year. Twice.
This twenty-third review covers The Backwards Mask, the third book in the TNE trilogy, as conceived by author Matthew Carson—who was commissioned to write it when Paul Brunette's original conclusion was thought lost. It's a PDF release that's available from DrivethruRPG.
(Paul Brunette's original novel was later rediscovered, and Far Future Enterprises published that too, also at DrivethruRPG. You can read my review of that earlier book here.)
Matthew Carson's The Backwards Mask begins back on Aubaine, with the crew of the Hornet being offered up a new mission. However, this time the stakes are higher, as they are told that the entire Reformation Coalition could succeed or fail based on their mission. A delivery from the Hiver Federation has gone awry, and with it a computer that stores a hundred years of technological advance that was intended to help guide the Coalition in the decades ahead. The Hornet must retrieve that databank, but without letting on the importance of what they're doing.
Things turn out to be more complex, though. Looking into this lost ship soon brings the Hornet into conflict with a sector-wide conspiracy that could be even more dangerous to the Coalition than the loss of the databank itself.
Though The Backwards Mask is being sold as a single book, it's practically a trilogy. I suspect its total word count is similar to the word count of Brunette's original set of three books, and it's even got three different major climaxes, arranged equidistantly apart in the book. Thus, though the book is quite long, it's also pretty tight (though there were some places that I thought an editor could have improved things, as I note below).
Genre & Style
The previous books in this series, all by Paul Brunette, were clearly gaming fiction. Though Brunette's writing had improved by his third volume, the structure of that book was still very adventure-like: with a ship on the move running into a problem, then solving it. Brunette's focus was clearly more on action and adventure than on character, though that also improved as the trilogy went on.
Matthew Carson's book starts out feeling somewhat similar: the Hornet
is given a mission and it jumps from system to system to solve the problem, encountering things as it goes. However, these picaresque adventures tend to be more tightly connected than those in previous books. In addition, Carson does a lot to expand the book beyond its gaming fiction roots.
To start with, he treats the characters like real people. We're reminded often that they have real names, not just call signs. He also delves deeper into their inner emotional worlds. I felt like he spent just a bit too much time pairing people up romantically, but having some of that was appreciated, because it was another view into the worlds of these characters.
There's also some good attention spent not just on the main characters of the Hornet but also on their allies and foes alike. Again, I did at times feel like this was used to excess, but getting some of it was very nice and helped make Carson's TNE universe a larger place.
(Generally, I thought that this The Backwards Mask could have used a bit more attention from an editor willing to help the author cut some of the material to get to the core of the story, but it was a minority of a time that I felt that material had gotten too long.)
The other thing that really stood out in this volume was its epic scope, something that was largely missing from Paul Brunette's original trilogy. And, I should say that may not have been the fault of Brunette in the least. Writing gaming fiction for a game being actively developed can be a very different thing, because you don't want to undercut gamemasters and players across the world. Carson had a much more open sandbox, as TNE has been dead for almost 20 years.
What's notable, though, it that Carson did use that bigger canvas to tell a larger story. The result is great. It makes this Backwards Mask feel more important and more gripping. The stakes are higher not just for the whole Reformation Coalition, but also for the crew of the Hornet itself. I was momentarily afraid near the end that Carson was going to lose track of his main characters in the epic story that he'd developed, but just then he managed to bring them back to center stage in an interesting and believable way.
Overall, Matthew Carson's The Backwards Mask feels to me like it's the trilogy of books that GDW should have released back in the 1990s. It does a great job of highlighting the adventure and the epic story that's possible in the New Era, while simultaneously tying that to an individual starship that could have been crewed by players of the RPG.
So, overall: the writing was generally good, particularly for fiction originating in the gaming world, and thus I've given this Backwards Mask a "4" out of "5" for Style. The scope of the story tone is great and thus I've given it a "5" out of "5" for Substance.
Applicability to Mongoose Traveller
The vast majority of this book is only going to be applicable to people gaming in The New Era. However, it does a great job of supporting that era. Whereas Brunette's original books gave me ideas of TNE adventures that I could run, this one suggests an epic TNE campaign.
More broadly, there's some real nice detail here on the Ithklur, who have really only been seen previously in TNE's Aliens of the Rim: Hivers and Ithklur. If you're running a Traveller campaign in any era that involves the Hiver, this Backwards Mask gives some great details on one of their client races. (There's much more depth in the RPG supplement, but I think you can get more visceral detail out of novels, as I suggest in my premise to this series.)
Overall, though, The Backwards Mask is most useful to GMs thinking about The New Era.
Matthew Carson's version of The Backwards Mask is one of the best pieces of original Traveller fiction out there. It's a pity it wasn't published in the '90s, as I think it would have been a better TNE trilogy than the more game-influenced one that GDW did published.