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Fine Prey
Scott Westerfeld
Roc Books, 288 pages

Fine Prey
Scott Westerfeld
Scott Westerfeld's teen novels include the Uglies series, the Midnighters trilogy, The Last Days, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and the sequel to Peeps. Scott was born in Texas, and alternates summers between Sydney, Australia, and New York City.

Scott Westerfeld Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Fine Prey
SF Site Review: Polymorph

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

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Since the age of five, Spider has lived at immersion school, learning the immensely complex alien language of the Aya, an interstellar race which has colonized Earth. Only the very best students are enrolled, and those who excel (and whose parents can pay their enormous tuition fees) are guaranteed a secure, prosperous future in the colonial bureaucracy.

But are the students forming a new human elite? Or are they being molded as traitors to their race? During the last summer vacation before graduation, Spider wrestles with confusion and rebellion while riding as a jockey in the fine hunt -- a bloody human/Aya sport in which riders use interactive software to meld with genetically engineered beasts.

Fine Prey is a novel brimming with interesting ideas, characters and settings, but it has one primary problem -- focus. It is not clear until the very end exactly what the essential conflict of the novel is going to be. Until that point the plot might best be summed up as "What Spider did on Summer Vacation." The reader gets a tour of the Middle East, an introduction to fine hunting, snippets of nifty future tech, some kinky sex and drugs, a lot of confusion over Spider's gender (not clearly stated until over halfway through), and a series of fascinating discussions about language. But there is little direction and no sign that there's going to be any point to all of it until the last chapter.

Fortunately, Scott Westerfeld caught my interest with his wonderful depiction of Ayan -- a language so complex that humans can only learn it through exhaustive study starting at an early age. It's a blend of sound, gesture and context in which nothing is said directly; instead everything is suggested with subtle, many-layered nuance -- sort of a combination Chinese opera, haiku, tarot reading, and conversation about the weather at Queen Elizabeth's family dinner table. Translation into human terms is almost impossible.

For instance, during an important meeting an Ayan comment is computer-translated as "This path is dangerous." Spider, who is listening, realizes: "DxKhan had spoken in the supine aggressive, and although the words denoted physical peril, the aggressive modes suggested a possibly worthy risk. The machine translation had missed the force entirely."

With Spider's prompting, the next translation is "Let us embrace this challenge." Subsequent attempts produce phrases such as "most dangerous" and "let's see," leaving all the humans at the meeting in hopeless confusion about what the Ayans actually want.

Spider also encounters human languages including Hunt Pidgin -- a polyglot of Spanish, English, German, Japanese and other languages which has grown up among the hired hands who travel the hunt circuit. It's all intriguing, but ultimately frustrating for the reader.

I assume that Westerfeld was trying to do something Ayan with the structure of his novel; unfortunately it doesn't work. The book needs focus and direction, and so does his main character, who goes along for the ride rather than moving the plot.

Still, although this is a flawed novel, Fine Prey is one of the most sophisticated treatments of language ever tackled in SF. Don't let the lame jacket write-up and bad off-the-rack cover art turn you off.

Copyright © 2002 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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