Premise: Captain Abraham Idaho Cleveland is a war hero ready to retire. For his last assignment he has been sent to the remote U-Star Coast City, a space station being dismantled for decommission. It rests near the strange star known as Shadow, with eerie purple light that has incalculable effects on those who look at it. The remaining crew aboard the Coast City are less than friendly, and skeptical of the Fleet Medal Cleveland wears, especially once he discovers the mission where he saved an entire planet from being destroyed by spiders has been wiped from existence in the database.
Shadow causes all sorts of electrical malfunctions and interference with communication, but its light also causes the crew to hear and see things that may or may not really be there. When Cleveland picks up radio communications on the banned subspace channels, he discovers a message from far away and long ago. With creeping shadows and malfunctioning electronics, he and the rest of the crew begin to think they are seeing ghosts. Or perhaps it’s just the negative effects from the looming purple star.
Themes: Ida Cleveland does all he can to uphold honor and respect, especially with records of his heroics being wiped from all knowledge. Nobody on board the station believes he actually earned the prestigious Fleet Medal, and because of this he feels he must prove his own valor to the rest of the crew. As a retired captain, the other soldiers don’t pay him the same respect as if he were still an officer.
Friends are hard to come by in the remote space station, especially when Cleveland is new to the crew. He befriends a medic named Izanami, but sees her only occasionally on the large station. The established crew already have their allegiances, and nobody wants to give Cleveland a chance especially with there being no record of him earning his medal. Lacking any true friends, he spends most of his time alone in his cabin listening on his piecemeal radio.
Pros: The Burning Dark is creepy, and it gets progressively creepier. Christopher made some intense characters in The Burning Dark, with the space station and the nearby star gaining personalities of their own. Everything is suspect when it comes to trusting senses or how characters perceive their surroundings, including interactions with other people aboard the Coast City. I like that there are multiple dangers all around for everybody in the enemy spiders, churning shadows, and the ever-present star Shadow and its odd purple light, all within the vacuum of space.
Cons: Without giving a spoiler, I think it was about halfway through the book (before the author gives away one important secret) that I actually figured out one of the main secrets happening on this secluded station. It doesn’t make the story less creepy or intense, but it’s the angle the story later takes that I felt could have been left more ambiguous. Thankfully, I didn’t think it went off the rails at the end, but it left me with the feeling of being set up for another book.
Recommendations: I’ve read a couple other books from Adam Christopher that I’ve really enjoyed, but I’ll say this is probably my favorite of his I’ve read to date. In The Burning Dark, he’s done a thoughtful crossover between science fiction and horror that sits firmly in either genre. The story takes an unexpected turn at the end, but manages to keep the reader on their toes. While The Burning Dark stands on its own as a story, I would gladly read another set in this universe of cyborg insects and subspace ghosts. Read at your own risk. You might find yourself jumping at shadows and hearing voices in radio static.