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Dance of Knives
      Second Childhood
Donna McMahon
      Donna McMahon
Drowned City Press, 392 pages
      Drowned City Press, 364 pages

Dance of Knives
Second Childhood
Donna McMahon
Donna McMahon has always been fascinated with the history and ecology of the Pacific Northwest, so her fiction is set in future Cascadia. She believes in writing about futures we might want to live in, not dystopias, and her goal is to write books that are hard to put down. She lives in the small fishing village of Gibson's Landing, declared the most liveable town in the world in a 2009 UN competition.

Donna McMahon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Dance of Knives

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alma A. Hromic

Earlier reviewers and blurbs have likened this story to Beauty and the Beast -- but if there are fairy tale comparisons to be had in this gritty series by Canadian author Donna McMahon, it's more, in my mind, what Pinochhio would have been like if the story had been written by Philip K. Dick in full Blade Runner mode.

In a nutshell -- post-global-warming Vancouver is not what it used to be, with water where streets once used to be and parts of town divided severely into the have and have-not sections. Certain human beings living in the 22nd century have been modified in more or less unspeakable ways in order to be useful to others in positions of power. The main character of these books is a boy who once used to be known as Simon Lau, but who has been wired up as a data shark (someone who can plug into and manipulate data streams in the internet cyber-universe) and as an enforcer, a human weapon with iffy hair-triggers and an impossible-to-know tipping point at which moment he becomes an unstoppable killing machine. Somewhere in this wiped, wired and re-wired mind lurks the remnant of the boy that Simon once was… a boy who can barely remember what it means to be human.

Enter the supporting cast -- Toni, a therapist-turned-bartender with secrets of her own; Klale, the "Beauty" of the original Beauty and the Beast comparison, a relative innocent landing in the big bad city and falling foul of its rules and of its more unsavoury characters; a knot of lesbian and/or trans characters involved with the famous downtown landmark bar, the KlonDyke; a bevy of others, villain or friend, who cross Simon's path on his journey back to his own humanity.

Of them all, Toni is the one who stands out for me in terms of sympathy, as well as in terms of believability. This is a damaged woman who makes grievous mistakes born of that damage, and claws her way back from them -- you read about her, your believe her and in her, and she carries your interest and every ounce of your goodwill, even when she screws up spectacularly. Klale… is a little problematic for me because she swings from being almost child-like (which is often kind of annoying) to being a sexual being at a fairly interesting level (this innocent from the islands basically bounces on the KlonDyke stage to do a full strip act and then accepts a contract for more of the same, even after it has been kind of hinted at in the narrative that she's never done anything quite like this before -- and that's before we get to the physical relationship that she is well on the way to developing with Simon himself, who has, amongst other things in his formative years, been comprehensively castrated… which would make for an interesting encounter between the sheets…) I could never quite believe in Klale.

Simon himself, however, is a fascinating tour-de-force character and his metamorphosis from a mindless meat machine to a real human being is lovingly and beautifully handled. McMahon almost skates into the hard-to-conquer territory of multiple personality disorder, except that here the personalities are manufactured ones, built on, as Blade the enforcer is grafted onto Simon the little boy. Interesting psychological twists and turns here, and the relationship between the broken patient and his just-as-broken (if not more so) therapist in the person of Toni is breathtaking in its nuanced portrayal. It's all a high-wire dance without a net, and you get a very real sense of that in this story.

There is more to come -- I am told that there are seven books in the series, and the next one, Old Enemies is in the pipeline. For the portrayal of the familiar-rendered-strange (the city of Vancouver, and what becomes of it in the aftermath of a sea-rise) and the strange-rendered-familiar (the 22nd century society and the way it functions, both brutal and sophisticated at the same time), these books would be hard to beat.

Copyright © 2010 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves." When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Her international success, The Secrets of Jin Shei, has been translated into ten languages worldwide, and its follow-up, Embers of Heaven, is coming out in 2006. She is also the author of the fantasy duology The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days.

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