Looking for something thrilling without the horror or gore this spooky season? Look no further than The Salvation Gambit from Emily Skrutskie.
I’ve been a fan of hers ever since her Abyss duology came out (you can read my review for both of them here). So, when I heard she was writing a scifi thriller about a hot-heated, snarky hacker and her team of con women who have to outwit the AI controlling a former imperial warship-turned-penal colony named The Justice, I knew I had to pick up a review copy.
If you liked the TV show Leverage but wished it were only about women, this is the book for you. If you enjoy the parts of Star Wars that involve sneaking around space ships and megastructures while outwitting imperialists, this is the book for you. If you enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the last vestiges of a crumbling empire get torn apart and women who are willing to look hard at themselves to overcome trauma and emotionally unhealthy work relationships, this is definitely the book for you.
Or, as Skrutskie herself put it on her Tumblr…
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Run-Down
Murdock has always believed in Hark, the woman who shaped her from a petty thief and lowlife hacker into a promising con artist. Hark is everything Murdock aspires to be, from her slick fashion sense to her unfailing ability to plan under pressure. Together with Bea, a fearless driver who never walks away from a bet, and Fitz, Murdock’s infuriatingly mercurial rival who can sweet-talk the galaxy into spinning around her finger, they form a foursome with a reputation for daring heists, massive payoffs, and never, ever getting caught.
Well, until now.
Getting caught is one thing. Getting tithed to a sentient warship that’s styled itself into a punitive god is a problem this team has never faced before. Aboard the Justice is a world stitched together from the galaxy’s sinners—some fighting for survival, some struggling to build a civilized society, and some sacrificing everything to worship the AI at the heart of the ship.
The Justice’s all-seeing eyes are fixed on its newest acquisitions, Murdock in particular. It has use for a hacker—if it can wrest her devotion away from Hark. And Murdock’s faith is already fractured. To escape the Justice’s madness, they need a plan, and Hark might not be up to the task.
If Hark—brilliant, unflappable Hark—can’t plot a way out, Murdock will have to use every last trick she’s learned to outwit the Justice, resist its temptation, and get her crew out alive.
The Good Stuff
I had so much FUN reading The Salvation Gambit. Seriously, I haven’t just sat down and enjoyed a high energy, quick-witted adventure in a long time, and Skrutskie’s fast-paced narrative will take you on a ride and won’t let you go until it’s over. I breezed through it in a couple of days, and it only took my that long because I’m an adult with a full-time, real-person job that requires me to not read books all day. If you’ve seen Leverage, the vibes of this book are like the best episodes, only you spend most of the time in that brief period where the con has gone wrong and everyone is scrambling to make sure it works out.
As with the other books of hers I’ve read, Skrutskie’s characters are delightfully roguish and surprisingly complex. I was impressed by her ability to pack in so much character work around the action sequences. Of the four women from the team of cons, I definitely get less of a sense of Hark and Bea, which makes sense because they’re not on page very much. However, for the characters we do spend most of the novel with, I fell in love with every single one.
I didn’t expect to relate so much to Murdock when I first started, but by the end of the novel, I felt deeply called out by Murdock’s journey of self -examination and growth. Her quest for someone to believe in her, her need for the approval of someone she perceives as a savior and mother figure, how much she feels that the best parts of herself are also due to someone who caused damage. How much she looks to external sources of validation to feel competent and wanted. Her need to feel NEEDED…god. I also grew up in a chaotic home environment where I was neglected by my family. Murdock’s deep sense that feeling needed is the closest she can get to being loved was a punch to my gut.
As someone raised in a Christian environment, I also appreciated the embedded critique of religious structures that wove its way throughout what could have been purely a story about empire. The intertwining of empire and religion is deftly done with the AI who controls the ship, quite pointedly called “The Justice“. I don’t Skrustkie’s background, but here, she understands both that religious fervor is real and meaningful to those who have it and that the religious leaders may have a purely selfish reason to engender such devotion. Religion, like empire, is devouringly self-sustaining and will consume others in order to maintain it’s own power, even when that sense of power is self-delusion.
Finally, the romantic subplot between Murdock and [spoiler] was *chef’s kiss*. Did I suspect the story would go that direction when I started it? Sure, but the pathway to get there was absolutely worth it and the payoff was fantastic. The moment they finally kiss, I was enthralled. Fantastic queer slow burn begrudging coworkers to lovers.
I wish there had been more explicit diversity, both in the main cast of characters and in the cultures aboard the warship-turned-penal colony. Skrutskie doesn’t explicitly describe the skin color or heritage of many of the characters we meet, which I felt was a missed opportunity to create an explicitly diverse team of con women. Relying on silence isn’t enough; we know from previous controversies in books and films that when characters are not specifically described as being non-white, white readers in the United States will automatically assume whiteness as the default. in 2023, it just isn’t enough to not make everyone explicitly white. A truly diverse cast must be clearly stated to be such. Because you know what’s better than a queer sexually complicated workplace relationship? An intersectional, even interracial queer sexually complicated workplace relationship. We always need more interracial, or even just non-white, queer lady ships!
I felt the lack of diversity in the larger worldbuilding context as well. Given that The Justice fills itself with people from all over the galaxy, I expected to see wider array of cultures and languages present on board. Space is a big place! And of course not all the colonies in this galaxy would have cultural practices that we recognize. In my opinion, Skrutskie missed a huge opportunity to explore new cultures, and the way those cultures would interact when forced to survive in the environment of a closed system like the warship, even if just in the background of the main plot. It didn’t break my enjoyment of the novel in any way, just something I felt the lack of and would have liked to see more of given how rich the rest of the worldbuilding around The Justice was.
Final Score: 9/10
Engaging, witty, and with a surprisingly poignant internal character arc regarding past trauma and overcoming self-doubt and the pressure to be what others need instead of what you want, The Salvation Gambit is not your average con. The character driven narrative will sweep you away, while the anti-imperialist core will have you thinking about what it means to not just survive but thrive under late stage capitalism. While I would have appreciated greater diversity in cast and worldbuilding, the central dynamic between the protagonist and her companions grounds the adventure in internal struggle and workplace tension. If you’re looking for hardcore smut, you won’t find it here, but there’s plenty of sexual tension, and just enough release.
About the Author
Emily Skrutskie is six feet tall. She was born in Massachusetts, raised in Virginia, and forged in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado. She holds a B.A. in Performing and Media Arts from Cornell University, where she studied an outrageous and demanding combination of film, computer science, and game design.
She is the author of Vows of Empire, Oaths of Legacy, Bonds of Brass, Hullmetal Girls, The Abyss Surrounds Us, and The Edge of the Abyss. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.
The Salvation Gambit releases today, September 26, 2023 and is available for purchase online or in stores.
Images Courtesy of Del Rey
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