House of Reeds


Thomas Harlan


Fantasy / Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

March 22, 2006

This is the second book by Thomas Harlan in his "In the Time of the Sixth Sun" series. This is a ho-hum book. In the first book, Wastelands of Flint, Harlan displayed some interesting alien artifacts (even though there were lots of unexplained threads left dangling by the novel's end) and introduced us to his universe. But in House of Reeds, Harlan seems to be holding back EVERYTHING, very little is given to the reader to advance the overall story of the series. It seems so conventional. This isn't a space opera, this isn't a Jack Vance homage (which is what the blurb from Publishers Weekly declares on the back cover). The aliens are "Star Trek" aliens - meaning they are just people with rubber masks or makeup on. They act like humans, their culture is just a generic human culture, there is nothing alien or interesting about them. They are big lizards. The space cruiser spends the entire novel in orbit, it may as well be an aircraft carrier sitting off shore while the marines go ashore. Indeed, the novel seems a lot like a convential war - everyone, human or alien, is shooting rifles, flying jets, shooting tanks - yawn, been there, done that. Harlan acts like he knows this could be a good long series, so he wants to hold back a lot of the cards for future novels, and the result is an unsatisfying read.

The book follows four groups of characters. Gretchen Anderssen is an archaelogist who has been sent to the planet Jagen to investigate the rumor regarding an artifact from the highly advanced but long disappeared First Sun culture. Getchen is accompanied by Magdalena (a catlike alien) and Parker, her pilot. Gretchen's story is the most interesting thread in the book, because only her interactions with the lizard folk attempt to treat them as a unique culture, rather than as cannon fodder included merely to increase the body count. Unfortunately, Gretchen's story is only a quarter of the book, and her investigation of the artifact ultimately reveals nothing. What happened to her training from Green Hummingbird in book 1? And why is Green Hummingbird completely absent in this novel? And how come no one seems to care what Gretchen is doing there - after all, SOMEBODY directed her team to the planet and ought to care what she learns there.

The second story arc concerns Captain Hadeishi on the Cournelle, the space cruiser full of marines that is returning from a long tour battling pirates on the frontier. The Cournelle is short on supplies and is needs repairs while the troops could use some R&R. The Cournelle is in orbit above Jagan when the hostilities break out. Sabotage wrecks the Cournelle, so the chapters devoted to it are all about trying to save the ship. The Cournelle never engages any enemy, nor breaks orbit. Hadeishi is interesting enough, but he doesn't really have much to do in this book.

The third story arc regards Itzpalicue, an old woman who is part of the Butterfly organization, which apparently is a rival to Green Hummingbird's group of Imperial Judges. Itzpalicue is convinced that there is an enemy to the Aztec empire, and she has some faint hint that this enemy can be unmasked on Jagan. Itzpalicue masterminds a war on Jagan, stirring up the lizard men and supplying them with arms, provoking them into attack against the Aztecs. Officially, this "Flower War" will provide opportunity for a glory, as the Imperial Prince and soldiers are certain defeat the outmatched natives. Unofficially, this war will provoke the hidden foe into tipping his/her hand. It turns out, her instincts are correct - there IS an alien race which apparently plots to destroy all humanity. Why? Not explained. All we learn is that there is one shapeshifting alien who wants to destroy all the humans. This thread is not at all developed, and at the end of the novel nothing has been established except that this shapeshifter exists, though still unbeknowst to anyone else. (I have a big problem with shapeshifing aliens - okay, so maybe you can LOOK just like a human you have killed, but how does the shapeshifter know how to speak like that human? How can it operate his equipment, know his relationships with others? Aren't there any DNA, fingerprints, retinal scans or any other forms of security/passwords in the future?) Harlan holds back way too much on this story, there is a lot of running around, but ultimately nothing is accomplished, the plot does not advance.

The fourth arc is just awful. It concerns Tezozómoc, an Imperial Prince who is a drunken spoiled brat. Tezozómoc seems to be included in this story to provide action sequences, because his life is always in peril. Two body guards fight to save his miserable hide, and end up blowing away an endless series of bad guys intent on the prince's life. These two body guards are future Rambos - they are invincible, they mow down hordes of lizard men. They suffer horrific punishment, only to leap up for the next fight. This book would have been much better if all reference to Tezozómoc had been deleted, and Harlan had instead spent more time telling the stories of Gretchen and Itzpalicue vs the shapeshifter.

I give this story only two stars. It reads like a routine thriller, the science fiction elements are just window dressing (a space cruiser rather than a carrier, lizard men instead of native humans, etc.) Harlan should have poured ideas into this book, instead, this novel seems stretched, that there isn't enough weight to carry it.