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The Burning Heart of Night
Ivan Cat
DAW Books, 591 pages

The Burning Heart of Night
Ivan Cat
Ivan Cat's novels include The Eyes of Light and Darkness (1996) with Darren Sarvari and The Burning Heart of Night (2000).

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A review by Victoria Strauss

Pilot Lindal Karr is one of the few humans able to withstand fugue, the immune system of the vast living entities called fugueships. Instead of falling into a coma-like sleep, as most humans do, Karr simply slows down. Passing a subjective day for every real-time year, he travels the universe in symbiosis with his ship, seeding human colonies among the stars.

Sometimes, though, the seeded colonies don't thrive -- as on the ocean planet of New Ascension, where the small human community lives in constant peril. Initially judged a paradise, New Ascension hides a terrible secret: Scourge, a deadly pathogen that infests all life-forms. The Khafra, a native sentient species, are able to acquire a limited immunity to Scourge through a symbiotic exchange of immune venom. To obtain the venom, the humans have forcibly domesticated the Khafra; but when Khafra bond with humans, the immune exchange is one-sided, and the Khafra quickly die.

Jenette Tesla, rebellious daughter of New Ascension's leader, wants to find a better way. Jenette believes that the feral Khafra, once welcoming to humans but now their implacable foes, have valuable knowledge to share, and she's determined to contact them with an offer of peace. Just as she's putting her plan in motion, Karr's fugueship crashes into New Ascension's ocean, setting it ablaze. Karr, surviving, wants only to put out the fire and save his ship. But the colonists see him as a potential savior -- or perhaps a sacrifice, since, for reasons no one really understands, the fugue in his bloodstream is effective against Scourge; and Jenette believes she's found someone she can draft into her quest. These conflicting agendas set in motion a chain of violent events, leading ultimately to astonishing discoveries about New Ascension and its ecology.

The Burning Heart of Night is a classic-style space opera, with plenty of suspense, sympathetic characters both human and alien, and interesting world building. I don't know how much scientific sense it all makes, but it's entertaining, and the various concepts -- the biology of the fugueship, the ecology of New Ascension, the pathology of Scourge -- are credibly integrated into the plot. One of the book's stronger elements is the portrayal of the alien Khafra, whose intriguing culture is based on the pairs of their symbiotic immune-exchange relationships, and whose mythology holds important truths about New Ascension; the human colony, whose peculiar religious convictions and rigid social structure aren't quite adequately explained, is much less convincing. Ivan Cat also does an effective job of contrasting the mindset of the domesticated Khafra, who are conditioned to service, with that of the more sophisticated ferals.

The novel is quite a bit longer than it needs to be, and some of the action sequences feel gratuitous -- especially a lengthy section at the book's midpoint, in which Jenette and Karr pay a visit to a long-abandoned colony site, and endure a whole movie's-worth of nasty perils and hairsbreadth escapes before the plot gets underway again. Overall, though, it's a solid read, and I enjoyed it.

Copyright © 2002 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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