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Blood Lines
William R. Burkett, Jr.
HarperPrism Books, 378 pages

Donato Giancola
Blood Lines
William R. Burkett, Jr.
William R. Burkett, Jr.'s other novels include Sleeping Planet (1965) and Bloodsport (1998).

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A review by Todd Richmond

Blood Lines by William R Burkett, Jr. is one of the more unusual books I've read lately. For one thing, the description on the back cover wasn't helpful in outlining the plot. A renga competition? Sounds like a type of martial arts tournament. Since it was supposed to be more dangerous than stalking the most vicious creature in the Universe, that seemed like the logical conclusion. But renga is a type of poetry. How is a poetry contest supposed to be dangerous?

Blood Lines takes place on the planet Ptolemy, a world renowned for two things: a poetry competition, and cybernetics. Both play an important role here. The story follows Keith Ramsey, a poet, journalist, historian and hunter, who plans to use all of those skills on a visit to Ptolemy. His assignment is to research the famous Renga competition, a poetry contest where previous off-world poets have literally died because their words failed them. He also intends to find his old friend, Ball, a human brain encased in a tough spherical shell crammed full of life-support, propulsion systems, and all the latest computer technology. Formerly a covert Terran Services operative, Ball is always in trouble and a good source for stories for a journalist.

Shortly after Ramsey arrives, someone tries to kill him. Twice. The evidence seems to point to the Commonwealth Executive, but Ramsey can't think of anything he's done to warrant his death. Meanwhile, we find out what Ball is up to. Having lost his partner, Python, on a previous mission, he's attempting to get Python cloned. He also wants to have an intelligent parasite, called a sybil, placed in his partner's brain and controlled by Ptolemian circuitry. The sybil provides the host with enhanced senses and a few extra benefits. However, this parasite also represents aniincredible danger to mankind, can only be controlled using specialized technology, and is prohibited across the galaxy. It is found in the wild only in the Blocked Worlds, a quarantined system, and found captive in a few select operatives of Terran Services.

So were does the poetry contest come in? InterGalactic Cybernetics has announced a new technology, capable of providing instantaneous communication across the galaxy. To showcase the technology, they provide the means to allow a number of off-world poets to participate in the renga competition. As the book unfolds, we follow Ramsey's efforts to sort out who's trying to kill him, Ball's mission on Ptolemy, intrigue surrounding InterGalactic Cybernetics, and the eventual involvement of Terran Services and the Commonwealth Executive.

The first thing you should know about Blood Lines (which I didn't, thanks to that vague back cover copy) is that the book is a sequel. Burkett's previous book was Bloodsport, which should provide a clue, but more honest marketing would have been helpful. There are almost immediate references to the events of Bloodsport, and I had to read the novel a second time before parts of it made sense. Without the additional background from Bloodsport, portions of the story were never clear. I'm still not quite sure why the sybil are so dangerous, and the greer are (is?) still a mystery to me. Ball's former partner Python plays a significant role in this book, but I was never quite sure what his character was supposed to be like. Did the cloning change him in any way, or was he the same? I'm not much for poetry, so that part of the book didn't appeal to me either.

Still, parts of the story were really enjoyable. Ball manages to play several sides against each another, with no one really sure to whom he owes his loyalty. Is he really concerned about his dead partner, or is he just using him? No one is quite certain what Ball's capabilities are, as he points out -- "They keep thinking they know all my abilities, and they keep being wrong" -- and he pulls off some amazing feats using his cybernetic body and nanotechnology.

Finally, I felt that Burkett could have developed the character of Keith Ramsey more. With his credentials as a journalist and hunter, I expected him to take the point position in a thorough undercover investigation, using his skills to uncover the truth and unmask the villains. Instead, he acts merely as a mouthpiece for Ball. Though the story centers at first on Ramsey and the renga competition, Ramsey quickly fades into the background and is, in the end, essentially a minor character. The focus of the story is mostly on Ball. Instead of Blood Lines, maybe it should have been called Bloodball.

Copyright © 1998 by Todd Richmond

Todd is a plant molecular developmental biologist who has finally finished 23 years of formal education. He recently fled Madison, WI for the warmer but damper San Francisco Bay Area and likes bad movies, good science fiction, and role-playing games. He began reading science fiction at the age of eight, starting with Heinlein, Silverberg, and Tom Swift books, and has a great fondness for tongue-in-cheek fantasy Óla Terry Pratchett, Craig Shaw Gardner and Robert Asprin.

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