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Bewildering Stories

Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Crystal Dragon

A Liaden Universe Novel, Book Two of the Great Migration Dualogy

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Crystal Dragon
Authors: Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
Publisher: Meisha Merlin, 2006
Hardcover: $25.95 U.S.
Length: 359 pages
ISBN: 1-59222-087-8

Some rare writers burst upon the literary galaxy with a voice uniquely their own. Some of these original voices are so seductive that they found their own genres. Was Dashiell Hammet the seminal inspiration of the noir detective genre? Perhaps, but Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald and Robert Parker and many others added their illustrious voices to the choir. What a glorious oratorio it became.

In science fiction, too, a few groundbreaking authors established voices powerful enough to dominate others that followed. I suppose I can’t really hold Tolkien accountable for all the fantasies of Elves and Dwarves and Trolls that came after. He wrote a great story, and it’s not fair to hold his feet to the fire, even if I’ve thought of it more than once, for those endless inferior imitations. Jack Vance has had his stylistic imitators too, though none of them entirely successful, to my mind. I could find other examples easily enough.

My point is, though, that whether these idiosyncratic originals have greater talent than their successors or not, those that follow in their footsteps owe them a debt. I think it should be acknowledged.

I wasn’t very far into Crystal Dragon when its ancestry became clear. Lee and Miller walk right in the footsteps of C. J. Cherryh. There was the typical political density of the plot, expressed in the multiple players and intersecting story lines of Cherryh’s (typically later) works; there was the unique prose styling, nearly as identifiable as a fingerprint. I turned back to the beginning of Crystal Dragon to look at the acknowledgements, but in vain. There was no familiar name there.

If you haven’t read any other stories in the authors’ Liaden Universe before, you may, like me, find Crystal Dragon hard to dive into as your first experience. We have two intersecting story lines. The first (and most confusing, for the novice) concerns two mysterious soldiers of the alien Iloheen. The pair (she and he, of course: there’s a love story here, though it’s scanted) rebel against their masters, a rather risky business. The Iloheen are, for reasons that never became clear to me in this story, ‘decrystallizing’ the galaxy (shades of another work, J. G. Ballard’s The Crystal World — itself one of the strangest masterworks of the speculative fiction genre. If you are a serious and literate reader, I highly recommend it).

As the Iloheen might quip, assuming they had a sense of humor (which they don’t, clearly), Entropy Happens; only, as I noted, I couldn’t figure out exactly why the Iloheen were hell-bent on causing it, from this story. I just had to take it that the Iloheen were Big Mysterious Baddies bent on destruction of the universe, and plain ol’ pure Evil was their motivation (never a very satisfactory one, to be sure. Even the Devil had more reasons than that).

On the other side of the battle-line, of course, we have humans, in a Cherryh-like variety of natural and genetically (Series or Batch) engineered versions. A tough-talking female pilot named Cantra (no lion’s tail, though) and a genetically improved M Series soldier, her co-pilot and lover Jela, have a mission. Somewhere on the world of Landofmist there’s a scholar-scientist who may hold the key to understanding the Iloheen’s steadily advancing wave of “nothingness.”

But to find the scientist, Jela and Cantra have to infiltrate an insular and decidedly knife-happy society of dueling scholars. To accomplish this, Cantra does more than put on a disguise; she creates her cover from the inside out, so to speak, and becomes a somewhat inept and foolish scholar herself. She doesn’t even remember her old persona.

That’s too bad, because when one of those bloodthirsty scholars challenges Cantra, she can’t remember how to fight, either... and her companion Jela is about to become decommissioned at the ripe old age of forty-something. Decommissioned (shades of Cherryh, again, in use of the pre-programmed genetic trigger) means dead, kaput. Things aren’t looking good!

I have a couple words of advice for Mr. Miller and his co-author Ms. Lee. First, move the glossary of characters from the end of the book to the front. I didn’t discover it until I’d finished the story, and it did me no good then. Second, as C. J. Cherryh often does for her more complicated serials, supply the reader a synopsis of the preceding books. It doesn’t have to be long, but it may save a diligent reader from being at sea for enough pages to inspire them to put down the book in despair.

Lastly, pay your debts. I don’t know entirely why this book felt so derivative, but it did. The authors’ story involved me (after that initial tough start), and I’d like to read others in the series, in spite of the sketchiness of the villains and their actions (how does one de-crystallize a star, by the way? It felt like an idea that not been thought through, somehow). But the echoes of those other voices nagged me to the end.

Maybe C. J. Cherryh (and I think, possibly, J. G. Ballard) don’t care. It’s inescapable that even the best writers are influenced by others (and sometimes, those literary references can add depth). If you’re good, or more to the point, if you’re profitable, someone is going to imitate you. Dan Brown should know. Every hack writer in the world now hopes for his own gazillion weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List with his very own religious-themed pap. Watch for David and Bathsheba in their own soap opera! It’s on its way, you can bet.

But Gene Wolfe, one of the most unique and honored voices in the genre, didn’t fail to pay tribute to another voice in his recent Wizard Knight series. You’ll see his thanks to the French-Canadian author Meynard in the Acknowledgements. If Ms. Lee, an exalted former director, vice-president, and president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, ever reads this, she will no doubt think what does that dumb reviewer know? Perhaps I hold her to a higher and somewhat unjust standard for the very oversight she once held of the genre. Or perhaps I think it might just have been... mannerly.

Copyright © 2006 by Danielle L. Parker

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