Return of the Whalefleet – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Darkstar Dimension #2

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Self-Published (Kickstarter Edition); December 12, 2021

length/page count N/A

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.0 / 5 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for Flight of the Darkstar Dragon (Darkstar Book #1)! Or maybe just check out my Review for Flight of the Darkstar Dragon first;)

Just what is the price of survival?

This is the very question First Officer Choi Minjun and her crew have been trying to answer. For months they’ve been trapped in the mysterious Darkstar dimension, with its violet oceans and glowing fish, floating rocks and peculiar gravity, turtlemoths and gigantic dragon alone for company. They’ve made a kind of home for themselves with the rift’s only other human resident—Brightest, an old man who was been living in the dimension for decades—but it is a far cry from New Windward.

Although… they’re not technically “trapped”. Min and the crew of the Melodious Narwhal can leave whenever they want. In fact, they’ve been doing it for months—traveling to and from the Darkstar dimension via the numerous rifts that orbit the star itself. Unfortunately, while these rifts visit upon untold worlds, none of them will return the crew to their home.That can only be reached through a particular rift, one that only comes once every few years. And until it does, the Narwhal will be staying put.

But Min and the crew have been busy.

There’s not enough to live on in the Darkstar dimension. Other than a few tiny islets and oceans full of tasteless, glowing fish, the place is fairly sparse. Thus the crew have been busy scavenging from other dimensions—while chronicling their experiences within.

While traversing the rifts is rife with danger, it is also myriad in wonders. The best example of this is the Whalefleet: a race of interdimensional travelers sailing across the sky upon the backs of massive, luminous whales. Their passage has continued for months; a constant and aloof, untouchable by the crew despite their best efforts.

But it turns out Min and her crew weren’t alone in the dimension after all. When a mysterious force reaches out and attacks the Whalefleet, the crew is faced with an impossible choice: stand-by as these peaceful travelers are wiped out, or intervene and risk the attention of the ancient horror that haunts the Darkstar—one not even the dragon is willing to face.

“He?” Min said, looking at Loom again, unable to find any… features that would suggest a particular gender. “Loom is a ‘he’?” She lowered her voice, feeling the colour rush to her cheeks. “How can you tell?”

“Silly. He’s glowing green, isn’t he? Clearly a boy.”

If you haven’t read any of Benedict Patrick’s Yarnsworld before, know that his novels often have an eerie, unsettling feel, complete with dark overtones and a story that doesn’t always work out too well for anyone. It’s often not bleak enough to be grimdark, but it’s certainly not your classic “and they lived happily ever after” fantasy. It’s dark fantasy-horror, pure and simple. When Flight of the Darkstar Dragon released, it seemed as though the author might be graduating to something else. This book featured a perilous but triumphant story, with themes of hope and perseverance playing a major role. But if you took that as a sign the author was turning over a new leaf, Return of the Whalefleet has just adequately dashed these hopes.

But while Book #1 seemed to be presenting the Darkstar as a temporary prison, it was one with limitless potential for adventure, exploration, and discovery. Sure, there would be danger, but also thrills, boons, and maybe even a new way home within the rifts. And if everything else failed, the crew could always escape to the (relative) safety of the Darkstar.

Only the Darkstar isn’t the haven that it appeared. Sure, there’s the dragon the size of a small moon to consider, but it turns out the real horrors have always been there, lurking just out of sight the entire time. There’s definitely more of a horror vibe to Flight of the that seemed to be absent from Return of the. But again, if you’ve read the author before this series, this shouldn’t surprise you. And shouldn’t disappoint either.

It’s not a huge leap, and one that returning fans should take in stride. I found that this darker overtone made the place seem like more of a challenge, more a test of survival than the adventure its predecessor depicted. It’s a little like the jump from Lord of the Flies to Pincher Martin. If you loved one, you probably loved the other; but which did you enjoy more? Both are about survival, but one has much more to distract the reader from this—and the other is much darker. But even if I were challenged, I’m not sure I could say which I enjoyed more. Yes, I know they’re unrelated story-wise, but both books are in the same vein and by the same author. Plus they relate really well to the question at hand. That being: Flight of the was inauspicious but ultimately hopeful while Return of the is much more morose albeit with the same adventure and thrill—but which is better?

While I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as I did its predecessor, it wasn’t down to the darker twist to the tale. Instead, it’s how the story seems to get sidetracked from the main event, particularly by exploring the rifts themselves. And this shouldn’t be the case, particularly because there’s no reason this should be a problem. If the plot to this was simply “explore and survive” á la William Golding—I’d be down with it. But the main setup at the end of Flight of the Darkstar Dragon really implied that the Whalefleet would take center stage—something that the title itself all but confirmed. And yet, we’re too distracted to notice it for way too long.

The beginning and the end focus on side issues, details that—while interesting—don’t directly connect to the tale Return of the is trying to tell. That being the return of the Whalefleet. Also I think the buildup in the previous book about the Whalefleet’s majesty and awe was a bit of a letdown, as this just didn’t wow with its description of the travelers’ procession. That said, had Flight of the not built my expectations quite so much, and the title of Return of the made me anticipate these more—I don’t think it would’ve let me down quite like it did. Just like I doubt I’d’ve noticed the off-topic distraction but for the book’s size. Yet there’s more than enough to love about Return of the Whalefleet: new allies, new enemies, new adventures, history and development of our returning cast and crew. The ancient horrors themselves were a particular favorite of mine; the entire buildup was amazing, but when they were described in detail it cast a noticeable chill up my spine. The haunting descriptions of these will stick with me, I think, more than so many one-offs in other books. Not that these are a one-off—that remains to be seen.

TL;DR

If you’d never read Benedict Patrick before, you might be forgiven in thinking that the Darkstar series took an abrupt 180 from its start in Flight of the Darkstar Dragon. If you had, on the other hand, the creepier, darker tone to Return of the Whalefleet shouldn’t surprise you. In fact, it might even come as a relief; a sign that the author still has it, can still tell a spine-tingling tale. Either way, this entry certainly marks a turning point for the series. But just where it’s headed exactly… I don’t know. Despite the change of tone (or perhaps because of it) this is still a great read. While held back by a slightly longer detour from the main plot than you might see in other books of its length, when the author does focus on the Whalefleet and the story surrounding it, I had no problem becoming immersed in it. The setting continues to be vibrant (albeit a wee bit more shadowy than before), the plot intriguing, and the overall adventure a thrill. While it’s not quite as good as its predecessor, I have no problem at all recommending Return of the Whalefleet! If you’re new to the series, I would definitely start with Book #1, but returning fans should be able to dive right in. Look out for Book #3—The Game of Many Worlds—hopefully releasing sometime in the next year. Can’t wait!

2 thoughts on “Return of the Whalefleet – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

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