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REVIEW: Light by M. John Harrison

REVIEW SUMMARY: A literary excursion that worked for many, but not for me.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Three alternating centered around the mysterious, luminous space entity known as the Kefahuchi Tract.

PROS: No padding; poetic writing style; quick read.
CONS: Poetic writing style annoying if reader immerses himself too much.
BOTTOM LINE: I suspect this book is way better than its first impression.

Contrary to its title, M. John Harrison?s critically acclaimed Light is a very dark novel. The book is structured in three alternating narratives.

The first story line is set in 1999 and follows scientist Michael Kearney. Kearney is on the verge of discovering a method for interstellar travel. However, he is being pursued by an entity known as the Shrander, from whom Kearney has stolen a pair of very special dice. When Kearney is not practicing science or running from the Shrander, he occupies his time in other dark ways. Kearney, we learn on page 3, sidelines as a serial killer.

The second storyline set in 2400 A.D. follows the sentient ship the White Cat, whose pilot, Seria Mau Genlicher, has given up her body so mind and soul can become one with her ship. The White Cat, based on the mysterious K-culture technology, hunts for treasure in the Kefahuchi Tract, an ocean of radiant energy in space.

A third storyline, also set in 2400 A.D., follows Ed Chianese (a.k.a. Chinese Ed), a thrill seeker who owes money to a pair of sister mobsters. Ed discovers that he has some skills as a prophet.

It is easy to see why so many critics love this novel. The strength of Light is clearly in the narrative style demonstrated by the author. Harrison?s prose is distinctly textured. He weaves a complex tale that draws the user in by the sheer speed at which events unfold. No words are wasted here. Imagine a 600 page space opera, strip out the padding, apply a literary writing style that can only be described as ?elegantly poetic?, throw in some unlikable main characters, and you have the 320-page wonder that is Light.

Still, for all the literary wonder that I know it is, I can?t help feeling that I?m missing the effect to some degree. True, the first few chapters affected me. The way the author describes Kearney?s first kill, devoting as much time to it as something so trivial as lighting a cigarette, is downright chilling. Harrison is adept at weaving a dark mood, a very dark mood, in fact. But after the novelty of Harrison?s unique writing style wore off, it started to irritate me. You have to read this book and view the storytelling from a high level. If you immerse yourself too much in the story it becomes a series of disjoint, hallucinogenic thoughts that lack continuity. I guess I?m just so used to trying to immerse myself in the story that I failed to realize that Light is best enjoyed from the outside looking in.

To be fair though, it was difficult for me to spend adequate amounts of continuous time on this book because of outside influences. So, while I am rating this with three out of five stars, I would easily agree that this is, in truth, a much better novel than I experienced.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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