The January Dancer
by Michael Flynn
Review by Andrea Johnson
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765318176
Date: 14 October 2008 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In the far flung future, pre-human artifacts, artifacts that can not be linked to any known colonized planet (and we haven't found any new friends yet) are rare, highly valued, and certainly worth killing for. When Captain Amos January and his crew find a cache of artifacts on a desert planet, he decides to take the only one not nailed down as booty.
In the future that Flynn presents to us, humanity is able to travel to the stars via Newtonian physics pulling on spacetime and allowing ships to fly down "Electric Avenues" between stars at nearly the speed of light. By discovering interstellar "roads", ships can carefully yet quickly move from star system to star system, bringing trade, population, and colonization. Perhaps in a misguided attempt to save the cultures of their homeworld, many colonies adopt an earth culture, and colonists will change their name and accent upon arrival in an attempt to blend in with the local culture. For example, residents of New Eireann speak with a sing song accent, and go by family names such as O'Carroll, Reardon, and Garrity, regardless of their planet of birth.
With little memory of what old earth might have been really like, the explorers of the interstellar roads gave them names of famous roads seen in history books – such as The Silk Road, The Grand Trunk Road, Route 66, and the Yellow Brick Road.
In Flynn's The January Dancer, the story is told from two different points in time –- when the actual story is taking place, and later as an old man's flashback as he relates it to a musician. It would have been impossible for anyone to be at all those places at once, so how can the old man possibly know everything he knows, and be telling the truth? As the young musician asks her questions, the old man continues his story about Captain January's discovery.
Captain January reminds of a Malcolm Reynolds type character, so I couldn't help but like him, nor could I blame him for swiping what looks like a harmless piece of stone. When January gets accidentally trapped in some local politics, he is forced to trade the artifact for ship repairs and release. Meanwhile, a coup takes place on New Eireann, and one of the local leaders, Hugh O'Carroll suddenly has a great need to get off planet, and fast. With the help of a stranger, known only as The Fudir, Hugh and The Fudir get themselves hired on as crew under Capt. January. Intrigued by stories about a magic stone that will make everyone within ear shot obey everything you say, The Fudir convinces Hugh that the artifact is their ticket to saving their necks, and New Eireann.
Meanwhile, on the other side of rift, in the Old Galactic Commonwealth of the Confederacy of Central Worlds, (populated by people who think those out worlders are complete barbarians), plans have been made to spy upon the outworlders, and invade their pathetic colonies before the the Confederacy finds itself surrounded by filthy barbarians. And besides, ships have been going into the rift, and not coming out the other side. The small bands of pirate raiders aren't strong enough, or disciplined enough to take down a Confederate ship, so of course, the outworlds must be responsible.
Violently and constantly changing hands, the artifact known as The Dancer, is a hard act to follow. Where it goes, danger and death seem to follow. January's plans for life don't include dying, so how will The Fudir and Hugh convince him to dive right into the chaos surrounding The Dancer? And neither Hugh nor The Fudir are of New Eireann birth, why should they care about what happens on that planet, when they can just get the artifact and walk away? But before they can do that they've got to wrestle The Dancer away from whoever holds it. When the Dancer's true powers are realized, the fight becomes all that more important.
The funnest part for me about this book was Flynn's playful use of everyday words which have changed over the millenia. Do you recognize any of these Central World suns, such as Tsol, or Dao Chetty? Listen to how they sound, not what they look like on paper. Flynn has some fun with everyday vernacular as well (again, listen to how these words sound, don't worry about what they look like) – great shopping on Menstrit, someone playing a legtrikittar, and riding around on a dubuggi.
Sure the play with words is fun, but mixed in with character's local accents, sometimes it's difficult to follow what people might be saying. Should I have been trying to decipher every word? Or were the deckhands opinions unimportant? There were times I couldn't tell. About half way through the book, you realize it's The Dancer who is the main character, as the action is always a few steps behind that hunk of stone. Our other players come and go as needed, once you get to know someone, they are gone and replaced by a new character with multiple names and home planets. Flynn creates plenty of enjoyable characters, why did he have to weigh the story down with 50 more people who aren't as interesting? The Fudir and Hugh stick around for most of the story, but their tenuous relationship with each other and their goals make them hard to relate to. The reader is required to hold all characters in equal esteem right until the end. Personally, I prefer to focus on a handful of main characters, and to be informed early on to who these main characters might be.
My complaints of a large cast aside, The January Dancer offers a full and detailed story arc, a fabulous future galaxy to play in, and a race of humans who are are trying to save what they can remember of ancient earth. If you enjoy space operas told from many points of view, you might get a kick out Michael Flynn's The January Dancer.