The January Dancer


Michael Flynn


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

March 25, 2010

he first half of The January Dancer is just a wonderful novel. Flynn introduces us to a galatic civilization with lots of colorful characters, exotic planets, and a nifty description of faster than light travel along electric threads/warps through space called the Electric Avenue. Flynn creates a sense of history with references to the prehuman civilization, the Confederation, and the Rift. Plus, there are space pirates!

I liked Flynn's prose, he writes some nifty phrases. Here is a sentence from the opening chapter: It began on an unnamed planet, the scarred man said, around an unnamed sun, in an unnamed region distant from the Rift. That was a bad sign to begin with, for what can come from nameless places but something unspeakable?

The story begins with a tramp spaceship in distress in orbit around an unexplored planet. Looking for raw materials to rebuild and repair his craft, Captain January unearths an alien storage facility buried for eons beneath the sands. This is a wonderfully described creepy scene - walking into the mysterious prehuman building, January and the crew encounter bizarre artifacts, including a strange stone that seems to slightly change it shape whenever you don't look at it. Because of the stone's shifting shape, they call the rock "The Dancer".

Flynn quickly adds many more characters to the plot (there is a two page Cast of Characters at the beginning of the novel to help you keep the characters straight.) Some of these characters have multiple names. Hugh O'Carroll is alternately called The Ghost of Ardow and Ringbao. Greystoke is also known as Pup and Tol Benlever. Some of these characters remain on the stage, many are discarded along the way. I thought it strange that the opening chapters describe Captain January, and introduce us to all of his crew, and then shuffle all these characters to the side. January himself plays only a tiny part in this novel, despite its title.

One thing that really irritated me was Flynn's use of something called Terran patois - a slang that I found mostly indecipherable. Here is an example: The Fudir spoke up. "Chop and chel, folks. First first," he said. "Alla bukkin where hole goes - bhola. Big dhik, miss front end. Alla blink-blink." What did that mean? I don't know what the Fudir was trying to say, and I didn't want to stop and sound out the meaning of the slang. Why would an experienced author throw in linguistic speedbumps to the pace of his story, forcing the reader to decipher the meaning of the conversation? I thought it authors wanted to communicate to their readers. I usually skip over paragraphs like this.

Unfortunately, the plot is farfetched. Any human holding an alien device is bestowed the magical ability that all who hear his or her voice must automatically obey. However, the voice must be heard in person, not transmitted electronically. But if you have a second identity, then you can ignore the compulsion to obey. Sounds more like fantasy magic than science fiction. And what would happen if the speaker used a language like Terran patois, where the listener couldn't decipher the speaker's words?

Equally unlikely is a solar system with lots of entrances to the Electric Avenue, in which spaceships pop in and out, yet these access points haven't been noticed on either end of the link? Or an alien artifact that allows faster than light communication between solar systems that nobody knows about, except when it is convenient for advancing the plot? Or someone who just happens to have a hobby of tracking ship images as they traverse the Electric Avenue?

At one point, Hugh finds a package of condoms in a hotel. That is as unlikely as him finding a flint and steel for lighting a fire. In a universe where someone can have a whimsical sex change operation in the afternoon and be fully active sexually that evening, there would certainly be a better form of birth control than condoms!

In between each chapter is a brief discussion between an unnamed scarred man and an unnamed harpist in a bar. These two individuals discuss the story as it develops. Flynn uses this device to explain plot points that otherwise would be missed, but ultimately these exchanges add nothing to the story.

I was disappointed by the ending. As I read along, I could tell that there were only a few pages left in the book so I began to wonder if The January Dancer was in fact the first novel of a series. No, The January Dancer is indeed a stand alone book, everything gets resolved quite suddenly. It was almost as if Flynn got tired of writing the story. There wasn't any explanation about the alien museum/vault/security chamber where the Twisting Stone was first found. There is only the briefest of explanations about the ships that disappear into the Rift.

My original impulse was to rate The January Dancer as a four star book, but I have downgraded it to three stars because of my unhappiness with the story. I was hoping for a grand space opera, maybe something on the scale of A Fire Upon the Deep; but The January Dancer resulted in being merely a good book.