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The Affinity Trap
Martin Sketchley
Simon & Schuster, 306 pages

The Affinity Trap
Martin Sketchley
Martin Sketchley grew up in Tamworth, Staffordshire. Following a brief but passionate affair with music, he began writing behind a market stall in Burton Upon Trent at the beginning of the 1990s, and sold his first short story to small press magazine Xenos in 1994. Having worked in retail and then catalogue publishing, he is now a freelance writer and editor. He lives in Birmingham with his wife and two children. The Affinity Trap is his first novel.

Martin Sketchley's website
Interview with Martin Sketchley

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Martin Sketchley's debut novel has the far-future setting and galaxy-spanning plot that's newly popular these days in SF. Alexander Delgado is a veteran soldier and experienced covert operative for Structure, the world government that has come to exist in the wake of humanity's withdrawal into gigantic habitat towers, sealed off from the trashed, polluted, disease-ridden world of the far future. When Delgado was rising through the ranks, Structure was a reasonably democratic institution; but since a bloody coup by the power-hungry General William Myson, Structure has become a corrupt dictatorship, and Earth, once respected as an interplanetary arbitrator, a hated galactic bully. Delgado, whose loyalty to the previous regime made him unwilling to be sucked into the vortex of greed and graft to which so many others like him have succumbed, has been punished by the sidelining of his career. Embittered and cynical, he spends most of his time in aimless leisure activities.

As the novel opens, Delgado is called out of his semi-retirement by General Myson himself. Earth is in imminent danger of war with the Seriatts, a powerful three-gendered alien race whose homeworld lies close to the locus of some of Myson's many illegal dealings. To mend the political rift -- and also to protect his personal interests -- Myson wants to father a child by the Seriatt female Vourniass Lycern, who is the assigned child-bearer to the Seriattic Royal Household. Lycern, however, objects to the union, and has fled to the Affinity Group, a mysterious religious enclave on the planet Veshc. Delgado is charged to go and get her back.

Delgado fears he's being set up -- there's no way a marginalized malcontent like him would be given such a mission otherwise. But he thinks he sees a way to turn the situation to his advantage, possibly by kidnapping Lycern and using her to manipulate the political situation. But Lycern, when Delgado finds her, is not at all as he expected. Irresistibly drawn to her, he succumbs to her sexual advances -- a choice that has disastrous consequences, for Seriattic females secrete muscein, a pheromone that is powerfully addictive to males of any species. Painfully dependent upon Lycern, his ambitious plans in ruins, Delgado is faced with personal and professional choices that will change his life -- and possibly the lives of everyone on Earth.

If you can accept the idea that two-sexed humans and three-sexed Seriatts are capable of cross-breeding, that Myson impregnating Lycern would be regarded by the Seriatts as a unifying act rather than a deadly interstellar insult, and that Delgado, a hard-bitten, nano-enhanced operative who has encountered the Seriatts before in combat, wouldn't know about muscein, you may buy into the premise of this novel (apparently the first of a series). Sketchley writes with energy and conviction, diving fiercely into Delgado's complex internal conflicts, lavishing detail on his various exotic settings. If the images thus evoked (and the action that accompanies them, especially once Delgado returns to Earth and falls in with a group of revolutionaries living in the ruined cityscape outside the habitat towers) seem to borrow a bit too heavily from the current crop of effects-laden SF films, Sketchley's dense prose brings them to vibrant life, and he is able to create a powerful sense of atmosphere, and even, occasionally, of poignancy.

Accepting the above notions, however, requires some serious suspension of disbelief -- especially Delgado's ensnarement by Lycern, on which the entire plot turns. Delgado is given an infocram file on the Seriatts before departing for the mission, which for flimsy reasons he ignores; even so, having gone into action against the Seriatts earlier in his career, wouldn't he at least have heard rumors about the consequences of sex with Seriattic females, and therefore have the sense to resist sleeping with Lycern? Apparently not; when he realizes something isn't right, and belatedly accesses the infocram, what he finds there is a surprise.

Also, though there's quite a bit of detail about the three Seriattic genders (mostly in aid of the gloopy sex scenes between Lycern and Delgado), almost no cultural or biological context is provided to put it in. It isn't really clear why there should be a third gender at all, since it appears to serve a strictly social, rather than a biological, function. Apart from some passing remarks by Lycern, Seriattic society is a blank -- a lack of background that not only makes it extremely difficult to understand why the act of fathering a child by Lycern should have such significant social ramifications, but has the effect, halfway through the book when Lycern and her pregnancy become a pawn, of reducing all the stuff about the three genders and muscein to the status of a mcguffin. At that point, any pregnant alien princess would have done. We're moving into Star Wars territory here -- and indeed the twist at the end, which no doubt is intended to make the reader's jaw drop, reads like something borrowed from bad epic fantasy.

I could go on but I won't. The Affinity Trap wasn't ready for prime time; if not for the endless cycling of publishing trends that has brought sweeping space opera back into fashion, I suspect it would have remained in the author's trunk. Yet Sketchley is clearly a talented writer, and in parts of the book this is abundantly on display. With fewer generic elements and a more internally consistent plot, his next novel might be really impressive.

Copyright © 2004 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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