REVIEW SUMMARY: It’s Elom 90210.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A group of teenagers must save their world, but first they have to figure out their relationship problems.
PROS: Intriguing world-building, realistic characters.
CONS: The realistic characters are teenagers with over-active hormones.
BOTTOM LINE: Too much soap, not enough space in this opera.
This book starts with some very interesting questions. A young girl in pre-historic times is getting ready for her coming of age ceremony. Then she has an encounter that has all the hallmarks of an alien abduction. After that dramatic introduction, we are introduced to characters on Elom, a place that is Earth-like, yet clearly different. They have a level of civilization similar to stereotypical Native Americans, but with odd discrepancies – for instance they are in remarkably good health. Also, the girl from the introduction is now referred to as if she were a prophet of some nature. Plus, the society described has some very odd and arbitrary-seeming rules. One gets the feeling that something very interesting went on between the Introduction and Chapter One.
Before we get answers to those questions, we have to get our cast of young heroes to the point where they can find out what’s going on. That’s something of a challenge. There are seven heroes: three men and four girls. They are all seventeen or eighteen. Kalmar is a warrior hunter. He’s probably the best at male skills in his age group. He goes out to fight a cave lion and is almost killed, but is saved by Snook, a “seeker” from a different society. Snook is albino, and very insecure and unworldly. This makes it difficult for him to deal with Kalmar’s girlfriend, the sexy and manipulative Arasima. Snook is also quite bedazzled by Kalmar’s lively younger sister Nutan. And eventually he’ll be quite taken with the shy and fragile slightly older priestess Cabyl. Then we must throw into the mix Dera, a serious young woman. She, like Kalmar, is the best at women’s skills in her age group. She is beautiful, but does not think so because of a large birthmark on her face. Her younger brother Izzy is active, intelligent, and her fierce defender. He and Nutan are the same age, and they’ll have sparks as well.
Resolving the various love triangles, quadrangles and pentagrams caused by this formation takes up way too much of this book. All these young people are gorgeous, brilliant and immensely skilled, and are chosen by the priestesses of this matriarchal society to go off to alien lands, with real aliens, to be “judged.” They all believe that the fate of the human race both on Elom and on Earth rests on the outcome of this judging. Unfortunately, once this is revealed, the kids still can’t ignore their raging hormones and settle down to the task at hand. They go through their own coming of age ceremonies, where they are tested and then the eldest have opportunities to choose their mates. Kalmar rejected Dera, but Arisima rejected him, and those scars color the entire “judging” mission. Izzy is angry at Kalmar for rejecting his sister, and Nutan and Snook are angry at Arisima, who does nothing to make herself likable except radiate raw sexuality at the men. Given the character descriptions it is clear how the author intends to pair off the various characters, so the process of getting there seems interminable. Dera is the only one who doesn’t seem to care, and it is only thanks to her that any serious thinking and action gets done.
Luckily, whenever the narrative turns back to the actual plot and world building, things are quite interesting. The society on Elom has obviously been formed artificially. Their births are strictly controlled: one female child, then one male child, then for a few couples a third child that may be either gender. The complex coming of age tests, and the fact that they use those results to choose mates, suggests some sort of goal-driven selection process. Also, the gender roles are segregated oddly: men are the hunters and builders, women are the artists and leaders. The art created by the women is bought by the alien draks, who introduce needed trade goods into the relatively primitive economy. This is another mystery, the sort of thing that keeps one reading.
As the kids progress in their journey, the author does a good job at answering some questions while raising more. The identity of the draks is a nice surprise that I didn’t see coming. Eventually the kids meet up with a god-like intelligence and get full explanations. The explanation of the initial abduction scene and subsequent founding of Elom’s society is satisfying, if a bit anticlimactic. However, after the endless agonies about the kids hooking up and pairing off, the god-like alien spends a significant amount of its time giving relationship advice to the kids. I imagined it thinking to itself: “Here I am, brain the size of a galaxy, and they ask me for Dear Abby advice. Call that job satisfaction, ’cause I don’t.”
Over the years there have been calls for sf that focuses more on characters. The stereotypical complaint is that sf stories are peopled by one-dimensional cardboard cutouts from central casting: the brave adventurer, the female warrior, the mad scientist, etc. However, if this sort of soap opera is what “character driven sf” looks like, I’d prefer cardboard. While these teenagers are well-drawn, they are the sorts of people that annoyed the heck out of me in high school, and they aren’t any less annoying today. I felt like many things got short-changed in favor of more relationship angst. For instance, after building up all the tests involved in the multi-day coming of age ceremony, only one competition is described, a footrace at the end. That’s the sort of thing I’d like to see shown in more detail. In the end, this book may be of great interest for that demographic group that consists of the overlap between Dawson’s Creek fans and Babylon 5 fans. Unfortunately, I suspect the membership of that set will be pretty tiny.