by Allen Steele
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780441016822
Date: 03 March 2009 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Allen Steele takes us back to Coyote in the first book in a new story arc where an alien ambassador gives a human a gift that will change the course of history - an AI version of the spiritual teachings of "Sa-Tong-ta" the way of life followed by sentient races throughout the galaxy. The recipient of the gift is an unlikely choice, a man with nothing to live for, but what it awakens in him may be what all of humanity needs to rise beyond self-destruction...if they don't wind up killing the messenger first.
Allen Steele takes us back to his backwater colony in Ursa Minor for the first book in the second duology, a placement too complicated for my brain, but I'm happy to be able to make the trip nonetheless. When he finished the original trilogy with Coyote Frontier, I wondered if we'd be back to this alien world of dense forests and frontier values. I shouldn't have worried, as two more novels spun off in the same universe: Spindrift and Galaxy Blues, both of which I enjoyed...though Galaxy Blues may be my favorite set in this universe, taking current space technology and showing how it might fare on the wider galactic stage. There's a very Have Spacesuit, Will Travel vibe to the scenes in the courts of galactic counsel that the humans have to face to be part of the bigger community. You don't have to read that in order to get Coyote Horizon, though it wouldn't hurt any, either. Steele says in the foreword that both books take place around the same time, so it's not like the plots are dependent on each other.
Reading the first trilogy (Coyote, Coyote Rising, and Coyote Frontier, would give you more background, to be sure. The central character in Coyote Horizon is Hawk Thompson, a troubled young man from a family that's had more than its share of trouble throughout the Coyote saga. All that being said, there's nothing to keep you from jumping in here and following this story through its arc. You can always go back and read the rest as prequels, which would be a fun way to approach it, come to think of it.
We open after the events of Coyote Frontier, with Hawk living out a colorless existence as a minor government functionary...a customs inspector at Coyote's only spaceport. Colorless, because he's been bleached of pretty much every bit of aspiration by the reformation and therapy he's received after having killed his father. Who, as I recall, richly deserved it. Now Hawk lives his days on parole with a silver monitor band on his wrist and a patch on his skin that will pump him full of immobilizing drugs if he so much as works up a temper. So Hawk goes through his days (and nights) waiting out his sentence within his bubble of isolation.
Until two things happen that bring him back to life. First, he saves a prostitute from being beaten by a customer, and makes a friend in the process. Second, he's chosen to act as customs agent for a meeting with an incoming alien ambassador, one of the hjadd, a race which it's almost impossible to write a sentence about without using words like enigma or mystery. Meeting the hjadd turns out to be the entry into Hawk's discovery of their religious/ethical systems, which in turn will have resounding impacts on both races, but first it sets Hawk on something of a vision quest of his own, along with the gal he'd befriended, into the wilderness.
Now, just when I've gotten thoroughly hooked on Hawk's story, Steele switches characters on us. That's only a minor gripe, because by the end of the second page of the new section I'd been snagged by the story, which opens like something out of a Maine guide's reminisces, with local Sawyer Lee leading a group of Germans on a hunt for boid; large, nasty avians that remind me a bit of Heinlein's "Joey's" in Tunnel in the Sky. The story quickly morphs into a search for something rarer than a feisty bird; a Navaho Shaman who'd disappeared into the unexplored wilds of Coyote. Morgan Goldstein, a wealthy recluse that figures in a number of the Coyote stories, had brought the Navaho to Coyote to tend his prize collection of horses...but Joesph Walking Sky Cassidy had a spiritual side that led him to follow his own path. Since that path started with drugs and led into the wilderness, Goldstein was worried enough, or so he claimed, to want to find out where he'd gone. Which brought him to Sawyer Lee, wilderness guide.
Sawyer Lee is worth mentioning here, because he's an interesting character, and we're very likely to see more of him in the future. He's an explorer and a naturalist at heart, a good shot and a cool head in a crisis, and the side-stories that he figures in sizzle with adventure. Hawk, who we get back to son enough, is a passive hero, and his strength comes in moments of calmness. Sawyer, on the other hand, is quiet enough in the frontiersman mold, self reliant and spare of chatter, but his moments of heroism tend to involve fending off attacks by sea monsters, surviving copter crashes in the wilderness, and flirting with the attractive reporter along on a round the world expedition. He's not the story's center, and none of Steele's heroes are showy, but I expect we can look forward to his return with confidence.
About midway through the book Hawk and Cassidy meet up, and from a spiritual standpoint, its a perfect storm. Hawk has been studying with the AI based text of the alien "Sa-Tong-tas" which represents the dominant spiritual/ethical beliefs of the galaxy, while Cassidy has been looking inward with the help of a drug native to Coyote called sting, which has the ability to open your mind in special ways. Put the two of them together and you get something new not just to humanity, but most likely to the entire galaxy.
Steele takes a shot at fundamentalists with the reaction to the movement that begins to grow on Coyote from a specific (fictional) church that posits that God only cares about humans because the alien races weren't "created in his form". Not that personal faith is incompatible with the teachings of Sa-Tong, but ones that exclude others from humanity are at odds with it. Now, a lot of SF has a violent reaction to fundamentalism, which they most often encounter in a Christian context. As the son of a Presbyterian minister myself, I've been fortunate enough to see this conflict from more than one side, and while I'm very much in agreement that fundamentalism is a frightening way of seeing the world, I want to toss in that one of the opening tenets of Christianity is that it's open to anyone, which was a pretty radical notion in its day. And perhaps is still.
There are five codicils of five codicils, which start with the statement that each of us is "god" and end with the stricture that you atone for your wrong-doing with right-doing. Steele isn't the first person to come up with a non-deistic system like the one here, and he mentions at one point that this is all very similar to a human system that had fallen by the wayside. If science fiction fans want to adopt a code of ethics or spiritual beliefs, they could do far worse than to look to the Sa-Tong. I'd be happy to see evidence of the Sa-Tong show up at cons (and beyond), and I'd be surprised if Coyote Horizon doesn't show up in SF research papers or dissertations.
The Coyote saga has now stretched out 50 years in the Coyote universe, not counting the original lower than light colonization trip at the beginning. Allen Steele has been commuting to Coyote in his mind for almost a decade now, and he's shown us that the characters grow, mature and age, move on and off the stage, and let new ones come to the fore. Coyote Horizon shows a moment when the old guard hands off the baton to the new, though they're still standing in the wings. Steele claims that this is the first half of a two book cycle to conclude in Coyote Destiny, he's been wrong before. The first Coyote book was supposed to be a standalone novel, but it turned out to be too large for one, or even two books. Whether or not he's right though, there are plenty of places in the Coyote universe that bear exploring, as Galaxy Blues has already shown us.
One thing's for certain. As Steele's storytelling continues to mature, his efforts to satisfy his readers by giving them more stories from this frontier planet is a bit like throwing gasoline on a fire. Now that we've gotten more...we're definitely ready for more to come.