BLACK ON BLACK
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
K.D. Wentworths fourth novel, Black on Black, is a masterful answer to John W. Campbell Jr.s admonition to create a race which thinks as well as, but differently from, humans. Her hrinn society is fully realized and only slowly revealed to both the reader and Wentworths protagonists. While the plot itself moves somewhat slowly, in many ways it is secondary to the culture Wentworth is describing.
The novel tells the story of Heyoka Blackeagle, a hrinn warrior who was kidnapped as a cubling and raised by Ben Blackeagle, an Oglala Indian. After serving in the military, Heyoka decides to track down his native world and try to learn something about both himself and his culture. He is helped in his quest by the human, Mitsu Jensen.
The human presence on Heyokas native world is small and confined, allowing Wentworth to plunge her hero fully into the culture of his native people which he only haphazardly, and frequently incorrectly, understands. Although described by Eldrich, the human bases commandant, as primitive, Wentworth very quickly reveals the hrinn to have a very complex, bipartite culture. The hrinn culture is different for the males and females, with the females holding a power over the males which the latter group refuses to acknowledge. As Heyoka is pulled into the hrinn culture, it is apparent that Wentworths knowledge of the culture is much greater than what exists in the novel
Another thing which becomes evident is that Heyoka may represent in some manner a promised messianic figure. The hrinn have a highly fatalistic culture based, for both males and females, on the recognition of "patterns." The coloration of Heyokas fur, black on black, seems to indicate that he is some sort of a prophet, although the hrinn are very reluctant to assign him any place in the patterns.
Even as Wentworth builds this complex culture, she indicates that the traditional ways are beginning to crumble in the face of human intervention. A war against one particular line of hrinn occurred around the time the humans first established a presence on the planet and hrinn are beginning to turn their backs on their own religion in the face of human success without the religion. This state of flux seems as if it could be leading to a period of anarchy while the hrinn try to come to terms with their new place in the universe.
Wentworths plot unfolds even more slowly than the readers (and Heyokas) understanding of the hrinn culture. Unfortunately, while the cultural clues Wentworth drops are intriguing, the lack of plot upon which to hang them tends to slow the novels pace. Just as with the hrinns culture, Wentworth does drop hints about what the plot is going to be, indicating that Eldrich is crooked and the extermination of the hrinn Line of Levv is more than it appears, Wentworth allows these clues to linger too long before she begins to build on them.
By the time Wentworth really allows the plot to pick up, just over one hundred pages from the end of the novel, she manages to throw several curves at the reader. While some of them may have been set up, most of them take the reader by surprise. However, because the plot is so minor up to that point, the surprises lose some of their impact when the reader does get to them.
Wentworth introduces a wide variety of characters in Black on Black. The majority of these characters are hrinn, rather than human, which further allows Wentworth to examine their culture. However, many of these hrinn seem to run together and their exact roles are not entirely clear at all times. Furthermore, at only 341 pages, Wentworth may have included more characters than this book could comfortable have supported.
While Black on Black is not a particularly well-rounded novel, Wentworth manages to build a complex and interesting alien species and culture. The fact that she includes such a small number of human characters adds to the sense of achievement in what she has accomplished.
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