City of Pearl - Karen Travis

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

City of Pearl
Karen Traviss
Eos books
ISBN: 0060541695 (Amazon link)

The To Read Pile is getting out of control, but because there wasn't much SF in there, I decided to try someone new more or less at random. This time I got pretty lucky, with City of Pearl turning out to be a solid SF adventure. It's low on neato Big Ideas, relying instead on a balanced synthesis of generic SF background tropes, but makes up for it with some good writing, tidy plotting and very strong characters.

I was persuaded to buy by Elisabeth Carey's review and as she gives a good plot synopsis I'll not bother! I broadly agree with her comments, especially when it comes to the Suppressed Briefing. I strongly agree that the strength of this novel is in the characterisation, especially of Shan, and that makes up for some concerns I had about other characters acting like idiots for the sake of the plot. I found it entertaining having the science contingent play Bad Guy to the military Good Guys for once, and even if I wasn't persuaded that certain key events mid-book arose naturally from the characters, I liked how Traviss had all her science 'payload' forced to act in a certain way due to commercial concerns. The author's military background comes through well, and in refreshing contrast to the more, er, explosion oriented style of Baen mil-SF, but I have to admit to being disappointed at how two dimensional and anemic her scientists and colonists appeared by contrast.

I really enjoyed this novel, and really liked the two central characters of Aras and Shan, but on reflection I felt that the nature of spoiler that Aras is hiding weakens the plot somewhat. Basically, Aras is Superman, and Superman doesn't make for dramatic interest - he can't die, he doesn't lie, he doesn't cheat, you get the idea. The other problem is that for a novel of alien diplomacy, there's not much alien-ness involved - certainly we're not in Cherryh's Atevi territory. Despite claws and funny smells, Aras is simply Shan's platonic ideal; he's a genetic cop, someone who just can't help doing the right thing and protecting people as he sees appropriate. That this includes violence is completely natural, and no more alien than, well, Shan's behaviour when her science payload do silly things. Having them be drawn together is perhaps a little obvious; I'd have liked to have seen Shan's very natural relationship with Bennet complicate matters more in the latter stages of the story, or have had Aras' idea of moral behaviour come into clash with the colonists religious views. Then again, their views on exile sat curiously with me too, apparently mercy isn't big on their church's agenda. However, these are minor quibbles made up for by Traviss' flair for simple storytelling; I was too busy turning pages to dwell on these minor flaws.

Overall? Excellent first novel, a genuinely hard to put down SF adventure. Recommended.

Posted: Fri - August 6, 2004 at 01:42 AM