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Bitter Waters
Wen Spencer
Roc Books, 320 pages

Bitter Waters
Wen Spencer
Wen Spencer grew up on the family farm in Evans City, Pennsylvania, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in Information Science, and has worked various jobs from Aluminum Expediting to Medical Research and Museum Renovation. Spencer is also the author of Alien Taste, first in the Ukiah Oregon series.

Wen Spencer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Tainted Trail

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

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I keep expecting Wen Spencer to knock my socks off. So, when I encountered the third installment in her Ukiah Oregon series my socks were already loose with anticipation, but once again the novel didn't quite make it. Damn.

I almost didn't read the first Ukiah Oregon novel I saw. The badass cover of Tainted Trail, showing a be-muscled hunk with a big handgun posed against a shiny SUV and dark cityscape, reminded me of an ad for prime time television. Then the cover blurb nearly finished me. A boy raised by wolves and trained as a private investigator? Ack!

But, incredibly enough, Spencer makes this improbable pastiche of elements work. Ukiah Oregon, feral wolf child and alien, raised near Pittsburgh by lesbian moms, and befriended by a rogue biker gang, is a surprisingly beguiling character. So what if he's a gorgeous superhero who has an eidetic memory and bleeds mice? Trust me, read a few chapters of Alien Taste and see if you don't get hooked.

Spencer's characters are all capably drawn, from the modest, naive Ukiah to his world-weary partner, Max, and even the wolf-evolved biker pack (don't ask). Big plot problems are huge and the bad guys are Really Really Bad (in Bitter Waters they're a religious cult out to save the Earth from demons, but likely to destroy the planet in the process). Nonetheless, Spencer keeps the story focused on an emotional scale readers can relate to, such as Ukiah's struggles to gain independence as a young adult or Max's grief for his dead wife.

Underpinning everything are meaty issues. What is individual identity and why does it matter? Where is the line between individual freedom and group responsibility?

All the elements are present for an epic story, and yet Spencer keeps missing the mark. The rocketing pace of Bitter Waters had me glued to the pages, but in this third Oregon installment character development takes a disappointing back seat to action and Ukiah spends far too much time reacting to events or engaging in long chases. (Note: there's only so many times you can kill your hero before readers get jaded.) Finally, this novel fails to stand alone, reading instead like the first half of a double episode.

But hope dies hard, and I'll be waiting for the next book with socks at the ready.

Copyright © 2003 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at http://www.donna-mcmahon.com/.


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