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Book Review: Forests of the Night by S. Andrew Swann

Reading 150S.A. Swann’s first novel — the beginning of a thematic trilogy — is set in a (by now) near-future America. It’s a 1990s cyberpunk-ish future, actually, where future-tech is still wired and location-based, the nation’s cities are in decline, and a world war involving nuclear weapons don’t necessarily mean the end of civilization as we know it. Japan and India are wastelands now, and the soldiers who were genetically engineered to fight in these wars have settled into an uneasy peace-time where they’re second-class citizens.

Nohar Rajasthan is the descendant of one of those soldiers, a human-animal hybrid named a ‘moreau’ for obvious reasons. He’s scraping together a good-enough existence as a private eye, living in the ghetto reserved for his kind. One day, a genetically-engineered human (called “frankensteins”) approaches him about investigating the murder of a baseline human. And if that didn’t make him uneasy enough, the victim just so happens to be linked to a well-known anti-moreau politicians with dreams of becoming a Senator. Despite his better judgement, he takes the case and quickly gets involved in a much bigger situation, because that’s how these things go.

Forests of the Night is a straightforward hybrid of detective noir and cyberpunk thriller, and it works pretty well. Swann has a solid handle on the tropes and structure of a good detective story, and he plugs in his own imaginative spins quite easily. This type of story hinges on the personality of its main character, how well the motivations of its supporting cast stays hidden (and seems plausible once they’re revealed) and how well you’re able to keep up with the many twists in the plot. I think it works on at least two of three levels, though I imagine your mileage may vary with the third.

Nohar is an uplifted tiger, essentially; a massive guy (around 8 feet and 500 pounds) who wants to do his work while staying out of trouble. In the grand noir tradition, however, trouble seems to find him no matter what. What’s interesting about Nohar, obviously, is his physical difference — we really buy into his character whenever Swann thinks through how life would be different for a guy with fur and claws. For the most part, that’s the only thing that really serves to set Nohar apart. He follows the template of your basic noir detective — gruff and stoic, with reserves of inner pain and a heart of gold. He doesn’t get in many fights because of a mental block, of sorts. When a switch gets flipped, he’s fantastically deadly, but turning on The Beast leaves him drained and shaky afterwards. It’s kind of interesting that we have a protagonist who is more than physically capable of wrecking house, but doesn’t do so because the drawbacks are far too high.

How could you say no to this cover?

Much tiger. Very wow.

The world that Nohar inhabits is pretty interesting as well. There’s a lot of social parallels between moreaus and just about any other minority with its own insular culture, and that part in particular helped to draw me in to the setting. Moreytown is a run-down area in Cleveland long ago abandoned by most humans, patrolled by a single pair of policemen to make sure any trouble inside the neighborhood doesn’t spill out into the rest of the city. Crumbling buildings, a thriving set of street gangs, bars with its own set of regulars and addicts — Moreytown has the works. And the people who get along inside of it are largely accepting of their fate, generally disinterested in a wider world that they see as hostile. Any involvement with humans, whether or not it’s positive on the surface, is a harbinger of trouble. It reminds me of my neighborhood growing up, come to think of it. The black urban community thinks the same way of the larger, white-dominated world around them.

Which is why it’s so odd that the one black person encountered in Forests of the Night — a cab driver that Nohar hires when he needs to check out a bunch of places around town — seems right out of central casting for an 80s cop movie. She’s a minor character in every possible way, but she still peppers her speech with outdated slang. “Sheeeee-it,” she says when she sees that her fare is a moreau.

The supporting cast, in general, are unquestionable allies of Nohar and his quest to uncover the truth. There’s Stephanie Weir, a human romantically connected to the victim fulfilling the femme fatale role. Manny, a mongoose moreau and Nohar’s best friend, is the voice of reason. And Angel is a lepine moreau who offers street-level pieces of the puzzle while being generally “tough” and obnoxious. Imagine a little rabbit voiced by Michelle Rodriguez, and you get the idea. We get a better sense of Nohar through his interactions with these people, and they offer vastly different perspectives of the world that help to deepen it and give it weight. For the most part, the world-building is deftly handled through character arcs and interactions, so well done there.

The mystery itself is a bit of a head-scratcher. There are so many players involved in so many different layers that it’s a little difficult to follow how one piece of the puzzle fits into the next. We don’t really get a good high-level view of what’s going on until the final confrontation, where Nohar puts everything together in a few pages of really late (and sort of convoluted) exposition. Still, it makes sense once things are figured out, and once it was all laid out I figured out the final twist perhaps a page or two ahead of the protagonist. The twists could stand to be a little more clearly sketched so it’s easier to know which direction Nohar has just been turned, but it’s also clear that Swann has a clear idea of what’s happening and it’s easy to trust in him to tie everything together. And to his credit, he does.

Ultimately this is a great little pot-boiler of a novel; nothing deep or thoughtful, but the action moves along at a rapid pace, the characters are intriguing enough to be taken along for the ride, and the world is fascinating enough that you’ll want to spend some time there. Forests of the Night is the first book in a trilogy featuring various characters in mid 21st-century America, and I’m looking forward to dipping back into the setting with the follow-up, Emperors of the Twilight. Nohar is a minor character there, alas, but it’ll be good to see how he’s doing.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Furries, Novels, Reviews

 

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The Unity Novels

I remembered reading this pulpy sci-fi novel out of the 70s when I was a kid, where some guy was abducted out in the middle of the ocean and put in some sort of intergalactic jail. One of his fellow inmates was this ten-foot-tall philosopher lizard, and it was this big, imprinting experience to meet this character. I’ve had this great love of philosopher-giants ever since, from the Ogier in the Wheel of Time novels to the Gurahl in White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Apocalypse game. I wanted to double back and read the novel again to see if it still held up, and then I was tipped off to the sequel when I mounted a search for it. Since I’m a slow reader (much to my great shame) that meant I’ve been spending a couple of months inside the fictional universe of the Unity, a cosmic government that brings together a whole host of different species. The Unity is little more than a backdrop for basic space adventures, but that’s all right.

Hunters of the Red Moon is the first book of the series, and I slightly misremembered the plot from all those years ago. Dane Marsh is a thrill-seeker who’s in the middle of sailing alone through the Atlantic when he’s stolen by the Mekhar, a felinoid race of slave traders. After organizing an escape attempt with a fellow “proto-simian” (the Unity’s term for human-like races), a telepath and an enormous proto-saurian, the group finds itself given over to the Hunters, a mysterious race for whom killing has been elevated to something of a religion. Along with one of the Mekhar captors they bested, they find themselves in the strange position of being “sacred prey,” forced to survive for roughly a month against Hunters no one has ever seen.

It’s an interesting concept, and if you’re into straight-ahead soft sci-fi that’s more action-oriented than anything, this is a book for you. Author Marion Zimmer Bradley spends quite a great deal of her time with the novel exploring the universe, and that’s just fine for me — it’s a fascinating setting. We get to meet various members of the Unity and rough shades of what individual societies are like. The proto-felines are quite good with martial affairs and were the inventors of hyper-space travel. The proto-saurians are large but peaceful, devoting most of their pursuits to philosophies and the humanities. Proto-simians are the most curious and gregarious, but there’s this shade of disdain among the other species because they don’t have a “heat” cycle and have sex pretty much whenever they feel like it. It’s a cool tweak to the reputation of humans in an inter-stellar society; I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it before.

Beyond that, the action scenes are pretty competently written. The spaces between them are marked with a smattering of conversations and thoughts from Dane on how to survive from one moment to the next. The book doesn’t like to get too deep — despite the fact that Dane lives in a world where there’s never been conclusive proof of aliens before, he takes finding out in one of the most extreme possible ways in stride. And besides a bit of light bemusement about the alien-ness of the characters he meets, nothing much rattles him. He is very much a man of action, more of a template than a character, a man whose chief characteristic is his force of will.

The supporting cast is far more interesting. I’ve mentioned Aratak, and while a lot of his philosophy reads more like a fuzzy carbon copy of Spock’s Vulcanism, he’s still easily the best thing about the book. Cliff-Climber, the Mekhar guard who chooses to join Dane’s party, is another interesting fellow — his outlook is so far removed from the rest of the group that he spends much of his time at odds with them, and his slow-but-steady integration is the closest you get to a character arc. Dane simply acts to survive, and so does Aratak. The women in the party — Dallith the telepath and Rianna the proto-simian — are mostly love interests and their personalities serve to off-set each other. Rianna is something of a sociologist, but she’s got quite a temper and knows her way around a knife. Dallith, on the other hand, is pretty much a damsel in distress the entire time. Her people almost never leave their home planet, and when they do it almost never ends well. Dallith has lain down to die when Dane meets her, and it’s only his sheer force of will that essentially carries her through the rest of the novel.

It’s possible I’m being a little unfair; to be honest, Dallith and Rhianna are fine as far as characters go, and given Dallith’s culture it makes perfect sense for her to react the way she does. I chafe a little at their role in the story primarily because Dane is such a square-jawed hero it’s hard to see why either of them would fall for him. I’m never quite sold on his romance with Dallith, especially, simply because it doesn’t feel like he’s responding to her specifically — he likes the idea of being needed, of upholding the ideal of manliness in some way. Dallith becomes something of a cypher in this way, a prop that completes Dane’s image of himself. We don’t know too much about her otherwise.

But these are problems coming from a different time. Hunters is a pretty good sci-fi pulp adventure and a rather quick read. It won’t necessarily rock your socks off, but it’s a solidly-constructed, simple story that’s worth checking out if you’re nostalgic for that brand of fantasy.

The sequel, The Survivors, is better in so many ways. It carries forth the tone of Hunters as a good, straightforward adventure story while shading the characters with interesting complications. Sometime after Dane survives the Hunt with Rhianna and Aratak, he finds himself on a capital Unity world bored out of his mind. Like so many post-need societies, there really isn’t any risk in existence — which is something that Dane feels he needs in order to be complete. So when Aratak shows up with a proposition to investigate a “Closed” world (a society that hasn’t advanced enough technologically to warrant association with the Unity) where a few Unity researchers have gone missing, he jumps at the chance.

The new wrinkles added to the setting enrich it quite a bit. We’re introduced to other proto-saurian and proto-feline races, discover interesting new things about how the Unity operates, and the tendency of civilized worlds to have only one type of dominant sentient life. The primitive world Dane and company land on features two, which is rare enough to warrant very close study. However, both the Unity researchers and their first rescue team have vanished without a trace, and it’s up to them to determine what happens to them.

The planet they land on has undergone some sort of cataclysm in its not-too-distant history, and the sun is relentlessly scorching. Dane, Rhianna and Aratak have to undergo reconstructive surgery to fit in a bit with the natives — the proto-simians are darkened considerably, while Aratak’s gills are hidden and skin changed so its darker and more moist. They’re exposed to a culture with strange but absolute cultural taboos; throwing a spear is considered one of the most dishonorable things you could ever do, and one must protect themselves from the demons that live as stars in the night sky. They meet a boy who chafes at the superstitions of the people around him, but there’s no good outlet for his differences. He’s mercilessly chastised by his father, and there’s no other position he can hold beyond a fighting one. Rhianna takes him under her wing, while Dane finds he can barely tolerate the kid. Their arguments over him open up doubts about his relationship and uncovers a surprising streak of self-doubt and loneliness. Even though it’s not touched on too deeply, Dane wonders if Rhianna is staying with him out of some sense of duty to him — he begins to see himself as some sort of backwoods primitive, incapable of being understood by the people who have been raised in a much more advanced society.

Aratak plays well off of another proto-saurian who is much less philosophically-inclined. It’s neat to know that his almost-obsessive quoting of the wisdom of the Divine Egg drives his cultural cousins crazy as well. It makes him more of a quirky individual, and I like that shading of him. We also find out why other races look down on proto-simians for their ability to have sex any time they feel like it; while on the planet, Aratak and his companion meet another proto-saurian who has, er, come into season. Their reaction is surprising and extreme; with bestial roaring, they disappear for weeks to answer the call to mate. When they come back, they’re ready to pick up right where they left off — much to Dane’s bewilderment. “Leave others their otherness” becomes a proverb that he actually has to work to apply.

There are also noble swordsmen who are only antagonists to Dane and his motley band through circumstances and misunderstandings, a few native and non-native animals who are terrifying in rather distinctive ways, and a surprising but satisfying answer to the mystery of what happened to the researchers and previous rescue team. Again, the novel never quite delves deep enough into the interesting ideas and character developments that get kicked up through the course of the story. It reads more of a travel-quest type tale with hints of a more thoughtful tale struggling to get out. But even these small steps towards complexity suit Dane and company well; the protagonist is more three-dimensional than he was before, and even when we don’t like him (which happens half the time) we at least feel something for him.

The Survivors is a good improvement over Hunters, though it’s not perfect. I would have liked to see where the series picks up from there, but unfortunately this looks like all there is. You could do worse than picking up these novels; they’d make for good beach or airplane reading.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2013 in Novels, Reviews

 

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