(2008) Jaine Fenn, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, 384pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-8291-5
This is the debut novel of a young woman whose short stories gave garnered her some interest and has a reputation for being as talented as she is enthusiastic. As the pre-publication publicity points out, female SF writers are a rarity and good ones even scarcer. That is true, but the 'proof of the pudding' is in the reading... From that point of view I would say up front that on the one hand Fenn can definitely write, in the sense of stringing sentences together, creating characters and so forth, but that this book is flawed on two main fronts. One is that the general backdrop, or set-up, or whatever you want to call it, is not terribly original; and the second front is that the plot seems unnecessarily convoluted, with few explanations forthcoming. Perhaps this latter quality (or lack of it) is to do with planned subsequent volumes, but there are some definite holes in this book where at least a hint would have helped...
Khesh is one of three floating cities above a world that has been ravaged by a war between the three parties. It is also a city at least partly built by a supposedly vanished race of dictatorial 'superhumans', known as the Sidhe, who once dominated human affairs. Politics in the city is mediated by assassination, though all parties seem to be under the instruction of the Minister and no real sense of the political life of the city is achieved. The assassinations are carried out by an elite corps made up of 'Angels', each of whom is fitted with anti-gravity devices such that they can effectively fly, as well as with weapons housed in their forearms. One such Angel, Malia, has been killed and her weapon stolen; her charge, Taro, without a patron is forced into prostitution and working for one of the gangs that live on the underside of the city - the ol' 'rich above, poor below' scenario. Meantime a singer, Elarn Reen, is visiting from another world, seemingly just to give some concerts, but in actuality searching for a missing ward of hers, who is now the Angel Nual. It turns out that Nual is a renegade Sidhe, that they are not all gone, and Elarn has been terrorised by the Sidhe into attempting to kill Nual. Except that Elarn is also a weapon to be used against the city by the Consul Vidoran, who has recently survived an assassination attempt by Nual. As Elarn employs a 'private eye' to find Nual, Taro is employed by the Minister to also keep an eye on Nual, and the Consul's bodyguard (a native of one of the other city-factions) pursues his own agenda.
Confusion piles up on top of several implausibilities until Elarn's weapon goes off (not that there's any explanation of what it is or what it has done) and the city starts to fall, but Taro is in place to see it all works out OK, with help from Nual. Even at the end, many elements remain unresolved. For instance, it is implied that the Minister is the city, but it is also implied that he is a male Sidhe, and that it was only the women who were despotic dictators, which has a curious parallel in that, of the 120 or so Angels, only 3 or 4 of them are male...! Proving that the female of the species (both Sidhe and human) is deadlier than the male, one supposes. Vidoran's motives, while clear in the simplistic sense that he is power hungry, are also unclear as to how he made contact with the Sidhe (or they with he), and why he would deal with a race that nearly everyone else is glad to be rid of, given that he would then be their puppet. Taro is also a disappointing viewpoint character, coming somewhere under the umbrella of 'the whore with' the heart of gold, more intelligence than the average, easily manipulable mind, etc etc.
While definitely flawed, this is still a promising debut in that there was always a clear intention to tell a story, and that there was some depth of vision behind it, but this still feels like someone 'playing safe'. I'll happily read more of Fenn to discover if she is any better once she has the confidence of a good debut under her belt and, hopefully, she'll let go a bit more in future and, at the same time, make her stories crisper, more solid and better thought out. I would say she is an author worth keeping an eye on, but to be sure not to accept any hype surrounding her at face value.
See also Duncan's take on Principles of Angels.
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