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The January Dancer
Michael Flynn
Tor, 350 pages

The January Dancer
Michael Flynn
Michael Flynn began writing science fiction in 1984, rapidly becoming a mainstay of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. His stories have also appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Weird Tales. Author of eight novels and two story collections, Flynn is best known for the four book Firestar series and the critically praised The Wreck of the River of Stars. Flynn holds a master's degree in mathematics. He lives in Easton, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Margie. He has two grown children and three grandchildren.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Eifelheim
SF Site Review: The Wreck of the River of Stars
SF Site Review: Rogue Star

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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The January Dancer is, first and foremost, an entertaining Science Fiction novel of the old sort -- nearly a Space Opera, with mysterious aliens (including legendary "prehumans"), desperate planets, people searching for a way back to Old Earth, an enigmatic object, travel through warp space that makes sense and the nature of which matters, and plenty of color. Perhaps appropriately, Michael Flynn sometimes seems to be channeling a particular old SF writer, Poul Anderson, in such passages as "the Rift ... a region where despair has become a feature of the sky. A place where some ancient god had drawn a knife across the galaxy's throat and left a black gaping flow of blood." Such prose often trembles on the brink of the exalted cliff of wonder, ready to tumble into the abyss of hokum. Flynn, like Anderson, doesn't always survive, though I do like the bit I quoted, for all its faintly purple sheen.

The story is framed as if told by a scarred man in a bar on the world Jehovah to a woman harper who wants to make music of it. As with many frames (all the best frames), the telling of the story becomes part of the story, and is important to understanding it -- indeed we guess soon enough that the teller and hearer have some connection to the events of the main tale, though what connection takes some time to become clear. The story proper opens on a deserted world, with Amos January's ship the New Angeles trying to find sufficient material to effect repairs. In the process they stumble on a treasure trove, holding wonderful and mysterious objects that must be "prehuman." Only one of these things is moveable, however -- a curious stone thing, that seems to alter its shape when one isn't looking. Eventually January and his crew escape with this item, that they call the "Slipstone," though others call it the "Dancer" (hence the book's title). January hopes to sell it to the owner of the Interstellar Cargo Company (ICC), famously a collector of prehuman artifacts.

But the story begins in several other places, now introducing the main characters. The world of New Eireann is precariously terraformed, and events conspire so as to result in a rebellion, with Hugh O'Connell becoming the leader of the resistance, earning the name Ghost of Ardow. But when ICC ships arrive to quell the trouble, the New Angeles also happens along. And the ICC captain acquires the Dancer, which, it now appears, gives its owner the power of command over anyone within their voice's range. O'Connell leaves New Eireann, vowing to return. And some time later, he encounters a mysterious Terran called the Fudir, and between them they end up planning to go back to New Eireann, steal the Dancer, and use it first to win back O'Connell's planet, then to liberate long-oppressed Terra.

Meanwhile, at the outpost guarding the main pass across the Rift, a mystery has come to light. Sometimes ships that cross the Rift don't return -- too many to explain by ordinary means. The Hound guarding this pass (a Hound is a sort of super independent space policeman) sends four people out to investigate this anomaly, including his chief "apprentice," or Pup, a colorless sort of man called Greystroke. Before long Greystroke has tracked down the Fudir and Hugh, and he recognizes that the mystery of the Dancer may be more important than his original assignment. But disaster has already struck: pirates have raided New Eireann and stolen the Dancer.

Finally, another Hound, the beautiful Bridget Ban, has come to the quasi-independent planet Peacock Junction, and she has uncovered another mystery. Also, it turns out, the pirates came to some trouble at Peacock Junction, and the Dancer may be lost again. Eventually Bridget joins with Greystroke, the Fudir, and Hugh, which is an arrangement that leads all to familiar human troubles before long. Anyway, they eventually find themselves at the oldest human planet this side of the Rift, where they will encounter the head of the ICC, and also the new owner of the Dancer, and where various further betrayals await -- and where a number of suddenly intertwined mysteries will be resolved.

It's really quite cleverly put together, in the end. The solution to the central mystery -- the nature of the Dancer -- is very satisfying, and is nicely tied in with the other mystery (the problems in the Rift) and which other things like the history behind Flynn's future setup. I also greatly enjoyed such details as the names of planets (like Dao Chetty, which it took me forever to realize was a corruption of Tau Ceti), and the names of features like Electric Avenue: the wormhole routes ships travel in this universe. The characters are a bit larger than life -- all as intended I'm sure -- which sometimes works, but sometimes stretched my credulity a bit. Things take a while to really get going, perhaps. The story seems needlessly obscure at times to begin with, but trust Flynn -- things that don't make sense in the beginning often suddenly emerge later on as key details. As I hinted, the prose is often very nice, but at times overcooked -- likewise the insistence on a sort of mythical meaning to everything grates on occasion (though it can be explained by the manner of telling). It's a very enjoyable novel in a rather old-fashioned mode -- but nonetheless not dated -- a fine space opera with a quite satisfying central mystery, and with a setting that could be reused for further worthwhile novels.

Copyright © 2009 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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