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The January Dancer Hardcover – October 14, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Acclaimed SF writer Flynn (Eifelheim)delivers an epic tale of adventure, intrigue, suspense and mystery. Forced to land for repairs on an unnamed, remote planet, Captain Amos January and crew discover a cache of artifacts left by a cryptic alien race long before humans went to space. They soon retrieve the Dancer, a shape-changing stone that defies analysis. Possibly the scepter of a legendary prehuman king, certainly unique, the priceless trophy is desired by diverse governments, military powers, plutocrats and cabals throughout human-settled space. Flynn knits a richly detailed story of hunters, bandits and patriots that will keep even the most diligent readers on their toes. The plot evokes old-school space opera with its whirlwind pace, immense scope and twist ending, but cutting-edge extrapolation breathes vivid life into this universe of scoundrels, heroes and romantics. This multi-layered story demands much of the reader, but offers more than equivalent rewards. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A harper wanders into a bar on Jehovah, the focal point of an interchange on the spaceways, and asks for the story of the Dancer, a prehuman artifact discovered by the crew of a ship commanded by one Captain January, which set down for repairs on an empty planet. They lost it trading for a working ship, and it changes hands many times over the course of its story. It shows up again on civil war-wracked New Eireann, then makes its way to a pirate fleet. If the legends are true, it’s an artifact of great and terrible power, and among its seekers are the Fudir, a Terran; Little Hugh O’Carroll of the Eireannaughta; and the Hounds Bridget Ban and Greystroke. Through its story Flynn weaves the stories of the minstrel who asked about it and the man informing her, which are connected to a web of tales enveloping the Dancer. Flynn puts his world-building skills to good use, creating a context that begs to be further explored, whether by him or someone else. --Regina Schroeder
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"In its original sense, a shaggy dog story is an extremely long-winded tale featuring extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents, usually resulting in a pointless or absurd punchline."
I don't want to be too harsh with this, because I did enjoy the story with all its twists and turns and interesting characters and depictions of varied cultures, though I never truly understood the planetary politics of what was going on -- maybe I wasn't supposed to. In any event, the tale is about the search for an ancient object, which brings me to:
Also from Wikipedia, re: "MacGuffin"
"A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is a plot device that motivates the characters or advances the story, but the details of which are of little or no importance otherwise."
There, I've said enough, perhaps too much and spoiled your reading of the novel. I hope not, because it is well done, though the resolution seems no resolution at all...see first quotation above.
One plot device which led me to the tone of this review, especially to the "shaggy dog" analogy, is the interruption between chapters of a never-identified storyteller "telling" the story to a harpist. I expected something to come from that, other than the telling, but nothing much ever did. It proved to be a colorful way to add to the word count, while adding little to our knowledge, in and of itself. By that I mean, if you choose not to read the italicized interruptions, you won't miss much of the main story. Maybe we are supposed to infer some things from how those pieces end, but, unless there is a sequel, we'll never know for sure.
I should also say that the author should give some passing credit to Rudyard Kipling and specifically to his novel "Kim" for a great deal of the "flavor" of the novel; and to Robert Heinlein and his novel "Starman Jones" from which the author practically stole, in much abbreviated but still recognizable form, the control room procedures and angst of an approach to a superluminal entry point in normal space. The physics is different, but the procedures are too close to be completely coincidental.
A nit: Those entry points should be detectable by today's technology, given his explanation, but we haven't detected them. "Indistinguishable from magic."
Again, I enjoyed the novel, but felt somewhat let down at the end. I'm sure you've figured that out.
In this novel, the Scarred Man is sitting within the Bar on Jehovah. He has a tale to tell. But he has multiple personalities in his head.
Amos January is Captain of the New Angeles. He is an amiable looking man, but has hard eyes.
Little Hugh O'Carroll is the assistant manager of New Eireann. But his official name is Ringbao della Casta.
Sophia Jumdar is a Colonel in the Interstellar Cargo Company forces. She is bound for Hawthorn Rose with two companies.
Fudir is a Terran on Jehovah. His name means stranger or outsider. He has traveled within the Periphery League.
Greystroke is senior pup for Hound na Fir Li. When a Confederate agent is captured by the Sapphire Point squadron, he takes on the identify of the courier and continues his mission.
In this story, a harper comes to the Bar on Jehovah to learn about the Dancer. She finds the Scarred Man and asks him about the incident. He tells her the following tale.
Captain January has problems. The ship is broken again and they are stranded within an electric road byway. He sends some crewmembers down to the nearby planet to find sand and iron for the repairs.
January becomes impatient and goes down to see how the search is going. Naturally, the crew has found plenty of sand, but still hasn't found iron ore. Instead, they discover an underground gallery with prehuman artifacts within it.
Most of the items are immovable, but one piece is portable. It looks somewhat like a brick, but it slowly twists and changes its shape. January brings it back to the ship with him.
The ICC takes charge of New Eireann after the revolt. Colonel Jumdar arrives during the civil war with half her regimen and promptly squashes the conflict. Then she calls for the rest of her Regiment and sends word to the ICC.
January uses marterial from the New Angeles to make temporary repairs, then takes the ship to New Eireann for an overhaul. January trades the artifact with the ICC factor for yard service. Then the New Angeles leaves the planet.
Hugh lead the Loyalist forces during the civil war. He earns the name of Ghost of Ardow. Now he is being hunted by Jumdar and the Rebels. He goes offworld, but vows to return.
On Jehovah, Fudir discovers an assassin stalking Hugh. The assassin kills one man and is ready to kill Hugh, but Fudir convinces him that any such attempt would be fatal to his health. Hugh and Fudir talk and decide to return to New Eireann.
Greystroke comes to Jehovah searching for Donavan, a Confederate sleeper agent. But he finds that his only contact is Fudir, who has gone offworld. He decides to follow Fudir and Hugh to New Eireann.
This tale is told by the Scarred Mar with frequent interruptions by the harper and others. The narrative between the segments of the tale is more informative than the story itself, but less personal. Except for a few fits and slips.
This novel has a strong Gaelic flavor, but the people of the League are only partially Gaelic. The worlds differ in many respects and the typical personalities in the League vary from planet to planet. The people of the Confederation are seen only through the eyes of their enemies, so they are universally considered as evil.
The story is a ballad of sorts, but it has a vague and suggestive conclusion. There probably will not be a sequel, but the loose threads leave room for another tale. Read and enjoy!
Highly recommended for Flynn fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales of interstellar adventure, twisty plots, and self-serving seduction.
-Arthur W. Jordin
The world building is exquisite, the characters have almost too much depth than being too shallow. The physics of star travel is actually pretty intelligent and modern. While the writing seems to be a little too poetic at times, it emphasizes the layers of details and ideas in almost every sentence and lets the world come to a fantastic life. There are many episodes on the side which don't advance the main story line, but they are always entertaining and add nicely to the atmosphere and the overall picture. In the end, the frame story blends into the rest of the book and leads to a satisfying conclusion of this first part of the trilogy.
I would initially give this book four stars, but I am thrilled to continue with Up Jim River -- and it deserves an additional star for the re-readability.