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Katharine Kerr
HarperCollins/Voyager (UK) / Tor (US), 630, 542 pages

Geoff Taylor
Katharine Kerr
Katharine Kerr is the author of the popular Deverry series of fantasy novels which started with Daggerspell, and continued with Darkspell, The Bristling Wood, The Dragon Revenant, and several others. Her Westlands series includes A Time of Exile and A Time of Omens. She is also the author of the SF novel Polar City Blues and the editor of the World Fantasy Award nominated anthology, The Shimmering Door.

Katharine Kerr Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Fire Dragon
SF Site Review: The Black Raven
SF Site Review: The Red Wyvern
Sample Chapters
Katharine Kerr Tribute Page
Katharine Kerr Tribute Page

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Taking a hiatus from her under-appreciated Deverry / Westlands / Dragon Mage series, Katharine Kerr turns, in Snare, to stand-alone space fantasy. Though science fictional elements remain secondary to Kerr's usual interest in story and character development, as well as world-building in a decidedly fantastic vein, the former possesses enough prominence as a frame to lend this work an identity similar to some of the writings of Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey or Sharon Shinn, though Kerr remains overall the more competent writer. This vehicle fails, unfortunately, to thoroughly showcase this talent.

Set within a far future world where aliens are human and indigenes insectile primitives, four distinct and sometimes hostile cultures have evolved in a Pangaea where the H'mai arrived as colonists almost a millennia ago. After crossing the Western Sea from an Old Earth homeland, the expatriates have since lost all knowledge of the way to return home, and their origins have become clouded by distant history. On arrival the original colonists separated into three groups, graciously granted lands by the native ChaMeech, with individual territories established by treaty. Some settled in the far eastern Cantons beyond The Rift, creating a semi-feudal society based around urban centers and the Church of the One God. Across the plains roam the tribal comnees, a matriarchal culture governed by vision quests and the magic of shamans, their livelihood founded upon hunting and an itinerant trade in horses which forms the material basis for a nomadic way of life. To the west and south lies the patriarchal Khanate of Kazrajistan, characterized by gardened palaces, mosques and a worship of the Qur'an.

In the eight hundred years that have passed since Landfall, the fortunes of the H'mai have come increasingly at the expense of the land's original inhabitants. The indigenous ChaMeech have long since begun to regret their accommodation of the settlers, and have come into conflict with all three societies, especially the expansionist Kazraks. But fortune has not entirely favored the H'mai, as much of the knowledge and skills once known to their ancestors has become forgotten or lost, each society experiencing a gradual decline or stasis, from the atrophy of the Cantons, the cultural complacence of the comnees or the increasing despotism of the Khans.

It is this last tyranny which prompts the opening to this tale, in a plot to overthrow the Khan in favor of a brother long thought dead. Three conspirators set out from Haz Kazrak for the Cantons in the far east, where it is rumored the Khan's brother has sought refuge. They are guided by a secretive sorcerer who has brought a message from him and who claims to know his whereabouts. To find him they will have to furtively cross the plains and the Rift, all the while avoiding bands of hostile ChaMeech that rove the lands outside Kazrajistan's borders. However, their plans have not gone unnoticed, and a member of The Chosen, the Khan's dreaded society of spies and assassins, has set out before them. Contriving to have himself adopted into a band of comnee, his mission is to locate the Khan's brother and assassinate him. The conspirators will attempt to stop him, but he unexpectedly falls under the protection of a comnee spirit rider, a woman who little suspects his real identity or purpose. To complicate matters further, while traveling in disguise amongst the comnee, the assassin discovers that he is increasingly drawn to their tribal way of life as well as the woman who has become his benefactor. Further, he is haunted by a hidden past -- not the only character for which this can be said -- which will pose unforeseen difficulties for the future.

Into this tangled web of conspiracy and conflict the author will attempt to thread a secret history, as well as various strands of subtext concerning religion, racism, cloning and the environment, along with conceits more traditionally associated with science fiction, though the narrative's tone and general setting read predominately as epic fantasy. At one point during the novel one of the characters ruminates on "How knowledge evaporated like water in the sun when a people, a culture, were dying, how myth sprang up like purple grass in a rose garden to strangle truth, and how well-meaning people had decided myth was healthier than truth." One of the central frames of this novel, along with other underlying themes it offers focus for inquiries pregnant with possibility. And at times Ms. Kerr deftly poses oppositions, undermining usual expectations, as in this pastoral interlude:

"This early in the day the air was cool; he could hear the nearby stream chortling over rocks; a breeze trembled the long purple grass that stretched to the horizon. The silver dawn caught a few streaks of clouds and turned them as crimson as the distant trees. Frogs croaked; tree lizards, as bright as jewels, sang to each other; the hum of constant insects sounded in the brightening light.
'God, I hate it out here!' Warkannan muttered..."
Throughout the novel the author shows herself, narratively, to be one of the better practitioners of her craft. But in many respects her very dedication to conventional, straightforward storytelling undoes her efforts. Her approach to this novel is clearly influenced by her background in fantasy, and while she attempts to incorporate science fictional elements into her saga, they never achieve full credibility or dissuade the reader that they are reading essentially a fantasy that incorporates technological props. Certain of these conceits are clever, such as the constellation of the Riders, though these are quickly identified as satellites by the reader long before I believe the author intended, and their presence never rises above being merely artful. Similarly, the underlying themes mentioned earlier eventually break the surface only to ebb away, never completely explored or examined. Instead the novel adheres closely to its action and the personal conflicts of its evolving narrative, approaching the more serious themes chased only to retreat back into the conventions and familiar tropes of characterization and storyline. Elements of science fiction remain but an embellishment.

Additionally, the story bogs down somewhat in trivial detail: camp chores, idle or reiterative chatter, and the usual tedium associated with travel which, incorporating the traditional quest, this tale is too endowed with. Seen conventionally, this fiction lacks the degree of dramatic tension necessary to drive it along, and is further burdened by a padding of details that would have been better jettisoned. And perhaps because of its multiple personality -- a desire to be more than what in the end it is -- the story often rambles, particularly after the first half, restlessly shifting focus.

While I suspect the author had a more ambitious novel in mind when she started out this narrative -- evidenced by its epic volume, the complexity of the fictional realm she attempts to create, and the stillborn themes she skirts -- in the end she fails to convincingly pull it off, and the story becomes simply a lengthy excursion swelled with unfulfilled potential. Though one may admire the effort or view it as a fledgling experiment, the same cannot be said for the timidity implied in the result, and I suspect had the author been able to free herself further from her devotion to narrative development rooted in epic fantasy, certain themes might have become more than trifles or scientific novelty. A disappointment from an otherwise fine writer, and fans of her earlier Deverry novels will have to wait until her return to conclude that series, which hopefully will occur soon.

Copyright © 2003 William Thompson

William Thompson is a regular contributor to SF Site and Interzone magazine. His reviews have also appeared in Revolution Science Fiction and Locus Online. In addition to his own writing, he possesses an MLS degree in Special Collections, and serves as an advisor to the Lilly Library for their collection of fantasy and science fiction. He is currently working with scifi/fantasy bibliographer Hal Hall, at the Cushing Collection at Texas A&M on the Moorcock manuscripts, and is a contributor to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Gary Westfahl.

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