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Dance of Knives
Donna McMahon
Tor Books, 416 pages

Rob Alexander
Dance of Knives
Donna McMahon
Donna McMahon, a native of Vancouver, works for QLT PhotoTherapeutics, one of the hottest biotech companies in North America. In her 25 years in the science fiction community in the Pacific Northwest, McMahon has been a convention organizer and a book reviewer for Tomorrow SF. She holds a degree in history and worked for 9 years in public relations for Capilano Community College. Dance of Knives is her first novel.

Donna McMahon Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Dance of Knives is set in a twenty-second century North America drastically altered by rises in sea levels, catastrophic earthquakes, plague pandemics, and the draconian social engineering of the United States, which sought to solve the problems of poverty and crime by massive relocation of inner-city residents. The city of Vancouver is a microcosm of these changes, with its drowned harbour, quake-ravaged Downtown area, enormous population of impoverished American refugees, and many gangs and tongs that control both drugs and industry; it's also a vital example of recovery, for it's still a busy seaport, and the headquarters for the various industry Guilds which are gradually rebuilding the economy of the Pacific Northwest.

Into the chaotic environment of Downtown comes Klale Renhard, a young Fisher Guildmember tired of her life on boats and looking for something new. Klale, who's a natural optimist and inclined to be overconfident, has badly underestimated the dangers of Downtown; she's all set to become a crime statistic until she's saved, inexplicably, by tong enforcer Blade, a neurally and behaviourally altered "tool" who is more like a deadly automaton than a human being.

Blade brings Klale to the KlonDyke, a famous Downtown bar. There Klale finds a job and a place to stay, and the beginnings of friendship with Toni, the 'Dyke's tough, capable bartender. Klale also becomes more and more fascinated with Blade, with whom Toni has a strange connection, possibly through her mysterious, never-spoken-of past. Blade's conditioning seems to be breaking down, revealing fragments of human personality that aren't supposed to be retained by tools; this is extremely dangerous, since tools who decondition often go berserk. But when Klale is abducted by a powerful enemy, only Blade can save her. In return, she becomes determined, with Toni's help, to save Blade -- if her own danger and the tong war that threatens Downtown will let her, and if the terrible secrets Blade carries behind his failing conditioning don't first drive him mad.

Dance of Knives, refreshingly, isn't a Big Science Fiction Story; there are no continent-spanning conspiracies or planet-changing events, just the very personal and local struggle of troubled human beings trying to make do in difficult circumstances. The plot is solid, but it's the characters that carry the book -- their battles with their pasts and their shortcomings, and the difficulties that arise thereby. For the most part, Donna McMahon does a sharp job with these characters, rounding out even minor players, making both Toni and Blade sympathetic and complexly real. The one (and unfortunate) exception is Klale. Although convincingly cast as a person who is overly impulsive and imperfectly self-aware, Klale ultimately becomes annoying in her obliviousness to what's glaringly obvious to the reader, and her attraction to Blade doesn't seem adequately motivated. This makes her climax-precipitating decision toward the end of the book less than believable -- the one point where McMahon seems to have bent character to the demands of plot, rather than vice-versa.

Overall, though, this is an entertaining novel, which also offers some thoughtful observations about social justice and social change. The setting, believably extrapolated from present-day reality, is fully-conceived, and unlike many dystopian efforts, isn't unrelievedly grim: McMahon conveys the squalor of Downtown, but also its vitality, and the darkness of her vision is balanced with clear hope for the future. There are many clever touches -- cell phones (which in McMahon's scenario really have achieved the universal usefulness the cell phone companies of today would like us to believe they now possess) have become fashion items; curses and epithets are based on ecological disasters. It's a promising debut, and I'll be looking forward to more of this author's work.

Copyright © 2001 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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