6 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Heaven’s Shadow by David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt

Title: Heaven’s Shadow

Author: David S. Goyer & Michael Cassutt

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Ace (US)/Tor (UK)
Publication Date: July 2011
Hardcover: 416 Pages

The science fiction epic of our time has arrived.

Three years ago, an object one hundred miles across was spotted on a trajectory for Earth’s sun. Now, its journey is almost over. As it approaches, two competing manned vehicles race through almost half a million kilometers of space to reach it first. But when they both arrive on the entity, they learn that it has been sent toward Earth for a reason. An intelligent race is desperately attempting to communicate with our primitive species. And the message is: Help us.

Stand alone or series: Book one in a planned trilogy

How did I get this book: ARC from the publisher

Why did I read this book: I’ve been in a science fiction mood, and how could I resist a book from the writer of Batman Begins/The Dark Knight (Goyer) and one of the producers and writers of numerous scifi television shows (The Outer Limits, Stargate SG1, and for the love of a dolphin named Darwin SEAQUEST)?


In 2013, a Near-Earth Object (NEO) is sighted in the night sky by two amateur astronomers. Affectionately nicknamed by the public as “Keanu” (for his role as Neo in the iconic Matrix films), the NEO sparks the interest of the world and also leads to an unlikely contemporary space race. By 2016, NASA finds itself at odds with a Russian/Indian/Brazilian coalition, in a race to become the first to land on and explore Keanu’s icy surface.[1. You’re probably asking yourself – no Chinese element? Yep, it puzzled me too.] As both the American team aboard the Destiny-7 and Venture shuttles and the international coalition aboard the Brahma race to make touchdown, it soon becomes clear that there’s much more at stake than political grandstanding. For Keanu is no mere Near Earth Object – it is an entity unlike anything Earth has ever seen before.

Penned by the screenwriting duo of Goyer and Cassutt, it’s understandable that Heaven’s Shadow is decidedly cinematic in scope and execution. The strongest parts of this first novel in a planned trilogy are those that one can imagine on the silver screen – the image of a frosty volcanic asteroid-cum-spaceship orbiting the earth; the discovery of caverns, regenerative cells, and creatures within. Even the politicizing drama that takes place on Earth from NASA Mission Control reeks of cinematic melodrama: the Department of Defense is characteristically paranoid and small-minded, while those working to keep the Destiny-7 and Brahma crews safe are ingenuous geeks. Heaven’s Shadow is exactly what one would expect from a summer science fiction blockbuster film – full of action and big-budget CGI-ready spectacle, if sorely lacking in originality, natural story progression, and character development.

From a writing and storytelling perspective, Heaven’s Shadow treads familiar waters. Borrowing heavily from films like Apollo 13 and visually from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the novel also shares marked similarities spanning the works of Greg Bear (the images of Eon, the first contact of Forge of God) to Michael Crichton’s Sphere. But all that is ok in theory, because when done well, books that use these familiar elements have the potential to be truly fantastic. Heaven’s Shadow starts out strong with a killer, albeit familiar, hook: Keanu is not just an NEO. Unfortunately, beyond that hook, Heaven’s Shadow has little original to offer. In lieu of plot development and gradual revelations about the nature of Keanu and its origins, plot contrivances abound. Alien “Architects” answer questions through telepathic links. One of the crewmates on Destiny has an honest to goodness nuke-in-a-suitcase, courtesy of the US government. One character goes absolutely ballistic at a certain point in the novel for no real reason other than to cause chaos and strand our astronauts on the surface of Keanu, miles and miles away from home. Even the alien names are utterly familiar: the Architects (more Matrix), Reivers (Firefly), Sentries, and Revenants are very tired tropes.

The biggest issue I had with Heaven’s Shadow, however, lay with the lackluster characterizations. Characters are described in this novel, but they aren’t developed. We are told Zack, for example, is a great people person and likes to play nicely with others. We are told that female astronaut Tea is a leggy blond and blue-eyed slice of apple pie and that she and Zack have a relationship. Being told these things point-blank, however, is no substitution for characterization (and in all fairness, perhaps this is something that does not translate so easily from writing for the screen to writing for internalized characters). In reality, the cast is blandly hollow and almost exclusively unsympathetic. Even after learning about Zack’s family tragedy, for example, there’s no desire to connect with him or his cohorts of disembodied caricatures.

Despite these shortcomings, overall Heaven’s Shadow has significant promise. The visuals of low Earth orbit, the competing shuttles, the images of a lost civilization with a probe sent through space and time is undeniably compelling. The knowledge of NASA knowledge and explanations are fantastic as well, and I loved the detailed background given to these more technical aspects, reminiscent of Stephen Baxter’s NASA trilogy (comprising Voyage, Titan & Moonseed).

It should not be a surprise, then, that this book, and its sequels, have been optioned by Warner Brothers for David S. Goyer to write and direct. Hopefully, in the next two volumes – or in the hands of capable actors – these characters will come to life and become more nuanced than their current state.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

Blue planet Earth and its seven billion human beings lay 440,000 kilometers below—or, given the arbitrary terminology of orientation in space, off to one side. If the sheer magnitude of the distance failed to provide a mind-boggling thrill, Zack Stewart could, by looking out the window, cover his home planet with his thumb.

That small gesture got the point across: he and his three fellow astronauts were farther away from Earth than any human beings in history.

Farther than the Moon.

Yet… they were still dealing with its politics, dragged down as completely as if trailing a 440,000-kilometer-long chain complete with anchor.

It irritated him. Of course, the fact that he had now been without sleep for thirty hours meant that everything irritated him. He was forty-three, a compact, muscular man with considerable experience in spaceflight, including two tours aboard the International Space Station. And now he was commander of Destiny-7, responsible for four lives and a multibillion-dollar spacecraft on a mission unlike any ever attempted.

He knew he should be pacing himself. But the stress of preparing for today’s unprecedented maneuvers—440,000 kilometers from Earth!—had robbed him of sleep. Mission control in Houston had been uploading scripts for burns that would adjust Destiny’s flight path, but the computer code was too fresh from some Honeywell cubicle and kept crashing. NASA called these commands e-procedures. To Zack, the e stood for error.

The process reminded him of the time he had tried to load Windows onto a laptop in Antarctica… with dial-up. Then as now, the only choice was to grind slowly through it.

He pushed away from the forward right window of the Destiny spacecraft and turned toward the lower bay ten feet away, where Pogo Downey had his 20/15 eyes pressed against the lenses of the telescope. “See anything yet?”

Pogo, born Patrick but rechristened in flight school, was a big, red-haired Air Force test pilot wearing a ribbed white undergarment that made him look like a Himalayan snow ape. “Nothing.”

“There should be something.” Something, in this case, would be a faint point of light against a field of brighter lights… Brahma, a crewed spacecraft launched toward Keanu by the Russian-Indian-Brazilian Coalition… Destiny’s competitors. “We’ve got two tracking nets looking for the son of a bitch,” he said, as much for his own morale as for Pogo Downey’s edification. “It’s not as though they can hide.”

“Maybe Brahma’s pulling the same stunt—your gravity whatever.”

“Gravity gauge.” Destiny was about to make an unscheduled and unannounced burn that put the American spacecraft closer to Keanu than its Coalition challenger. “The wind is at your back, your opponent is in front of you. For him to attack, he’s got to tack against the wind.” Pogo still seemed unconvinced. “Didn’t you ever read Horatio Hornblower? Where they mention weather gauge?”

“I’m not a big nautical fan, in case you haven’t noticed.” Pogo was fond of referring to astronauts with Navy backgrounds as pukes.

“Okay, then… it’s like getting on their six.” That was a fighter pilot term for getting behind—in the six o’clock position—an opponent.

Now Pogo smiled. “Does that mean we can take a shot at them?”

“Don’t get any ideas,” Zack said, not wishing to open that particular subject at this time. “Besides, they can’t pull the same stunt. Brahma’s too limited in propellant and they’re too nervous about guidance.” The Coalition craft relied on Indian and Russian space tracking systems that were far less capable than the NASA Deep Space Network available to Destiny. “Just keep looking,” he told Pogo, then floated back up to the main control panel.

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Rating: 6 – Good, with upside potential

Reading Next: Heaven’s Shadow by David S. Goyer & Michael Cassutt


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  • Lori Strongin
    July 6, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    I love the humor in naming the Neo “Keanu.” With a humorous opening like that, I’d definitely be drawn into the book.

    Re: the characters not being shown or developed in any way. That’s something I’ve noticed too in a lot of newer SciFi. I wonder if the authors of books like that have decided to save page time by not doing so in order to focus more on the “special effects” and science of the world. Not saying I prefer that kind of writing (I typically don’t), but it’s just a thought that I’d been playing with.


  • BiddaddyD
    July 10, 2011 at 8:01 am

    I was about 25% of the way through the book when I said “oh no, not this tired old plot twist again” and since the writing hadn’t grabbed me and I didn’t really care about the characters I just stopped reading it. I can handle rehashing old stories if the writing is interesting but that wasn’t the case here.

  • DED
    July 10, 2011 at 9:12 am

    You’re probably asking yourself – no Chinese element? Yep, it puzzled me too.

    Yeah, that’s a major oversight.

    And shuttles? I guess this book was written before the shuttle program was killed. It’s already out of date!

  • Thea
    July 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Thanks for the comments, guys!

    @Lori – I loved the “Keanu” reference, too! Regarding characterizations in sci fi, it really bothers me when certain books embody a genre fiction generalization (e.g. “Romance novels are chick porn without substance,” “YA novels are all just iterations of Twilight or Harry Potter,” “Sci Fi is all flash and technology with no characterizations”). Argh. Unfortunately Heaven’s Shadow falls into that category…but there are some fantastic new SF novels out there that avoid the paperdoll characterization issue. Hopefully the characters will firm up in subsequent books in this series!

    @BiddaddyD – I can completely understand where you are coming from, and don’t blame you at all for the DNF. I had high hopes for this one…unfortunately they didn’t quite pan out.

    @DED – Right!? I’m all for international coalitions in the space race but the complete lack of a Chinese presence was, frankly, bizarre. And yep, funny timing with the release and the shuttle’s final launch.

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