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West of January
Dave Duncan
Red Deer Press, 318 pages

West of January
Dave Duncan
Dave Duncan is a former geologist and recipient of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Achievement Award. His previous works include two four-volume sagas, A Man of His Word and A Handful of Men. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Dave Duncan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Tales of the King's Blades
SF Site Review: The Gilded Chain
SF Site Review: Future Indefinite
SF Site Review: The Great Game

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

Raised in a nomadic herding family, young Knobil is an oddity -- a fair, blue-eyed blond playing among browner, dark-haired and much larger companions. Ignorant and uneducated, Knobil doesn't think much about his uniqueness, until his dying mother reveals that he is the son of an angel who visited their camp long ago, and who has left a token that will admit Knobil to Heaven -- if he can get there.

This is the beginning of Knobil's life story -- not so much a heroic quest as a series of fateful accidents that thrust him from place to place and tribe to tribe across the planet Vernier. This story has all the elements of historical fantasy, and yet the setting is a science fictional world, settled two thousand years ago by human colonists whose technology has been lost. Vernier's rotation is so slow that daytime inches around the planet, taking centuries to complete one revolution. And as the sun moves across the land, the entire ecosystem must travel with it.

Vernier is divided into twelve longitudes named January to December. Knobil was born in the west of January, and by the time he is a very old man, the grasslands have entered June.

This is the entirely fascinating setting of West of January, an epic tale of misadventure and cynicism that reminded me very faintly of Candide or perhaps one of Lina Wertmuller's more mellow films. Dave Duncan's primitive societies are very credible, and he depicts them with all their dirt and lice. Though the herdspeople, sea people, miner "ants", traders, and forest dwellers all have varying degrees of colourful charm, Duncan is at least as interested in how rigidity, cruelty, and bigotry are fuelled by isolation and ignorance.

This will be a hard novel for many female readers to take. Almost all Vernier's societies are rabidly misogynistic, and Knobil also undergoes grim trials which seem endless by about midway through the book. Moreover, although we know from the start that Knobil will eventually reach Heaven (a university in the high dark latitudes which trains "angels"), there is no central plot problem other than survival. Knobil is propelled by events, and each time he moves on, he encounters a whole new cast of characters.

Although Knobil is a vivid and wonderfully flawed character, he is not always easy to like, and most readers will instinctively shrink from empathizing with him when he is brutally victimized. Moreover, it's hard to build dramatic tension in a situation where Knobil isn't driving the plot and the other characters are transitory. Duncan's morsels of humour (for example, Heaven is carried on the back of a gigantic turtle) are not enough to leaven the bleakest segments of the story.

Still, West of January is a thought-provoking novel. For instance, the weak and understaffed Heaven which struggles to preserve knowledge and peace among peoples can be viewed as a sort of United Nations, making Knobil's eventual social revolution into an interesting political statement.

West of January was originally published in 1989, and is a fine choice for the new Bakka series of speculative fiction reprints.

Copyright © 2003 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

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