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Tainted Trail
Wen Spencer
Roc Books, 311 pages

Tainted Trail
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
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Tainted Trail, second in Wen Spencer's Ukiah Oregon SF/mystery series, finds expert tracker and PI Ukiah Oregon and his partner, Max Bennet, on the trail of Alicia Kraynak, the niece of a close friend of Max's, who has vanished from the Oregon campsite where she and a friend were gathering geological samples.

Utilizing Ukiah's almost supernatural tracking abilities (the product, as readers learned in the previous novel, of his mostly-alien genetics), Ukiah and Max discover that Alicia has been kidnapped, which gives hope that she may still be alive. Disturbingly, though, Alicia's disappearance may be linked to a larger pattern of deaths and vanishings -- far too many to be normal in this rural part of Oregon.

Several deadly attacks on Ukiah and Max convince Ukiah that he's dealing again with the alien race from which he is descended -- the Ontongard, planetary invaders who survive by infecting host bodies. But to summon the only beings who can fight the Ontongard on their own terms -- the Pack, part-wolf, part-human descendants of a mutant rebel Ontongard, sworn to eradicate the Ontongard from the earth -- will create even bigger problems. Meanwhile, he may at last have discovered his human relatives, who can, he hopes, help him regain lost memories of his childhood. But it's just possible that they themselves may be the kidnappers.

There's an extremely complicated backstory here, involving not just Ukiah's alien genetics and weird biology, but his feral background (he was discovered running with wolves), the Pack and their genesis in alien rebellion, the ongoing war between the Pack and the Ontongard, and the Ontongard themselves -- or rather itself, for there's really only one Ontongard left. The novel bogs down periodically in the need for explication, particularly in the first two chapters; those who haven't read the first book may find that the struggle to make sense of these snippets of information interrupts the story's flow. I suspect this will be an ongoing challenge for the series.

Nevertheless, Spencer tells a good story, with well-drawn characters and a healthy dose of suspense in the (seemingly) conventional mystery of Alicia's disappearance, the larger jeopardy of Ukiah's flight from the Ontongard, and his dangerous relationship with the Pack. The alien invasion scenario is interesting, and Ukiah's struggle to make sense of his life, to find his human roots and above all to remain compassionate and honorable in the face of both human and alien evil, provides the series with a sympathetic central theme. It's a fun read, and a good entry in the increasingly popular SF/mystery hybrid sub-genre.

Copyright © 2002 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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