BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Multiple factions pursue a strange but powerful artifact.
PROS: Flynn’s poetic prose; the opening chapters were awe-inspiring.
CONS: Too many factions; political back story weighed it down.
BOTTOM LINE: Reading this felt more like a chore than entertainment.
Michael Flynn’s latest novel, The January Dancer, is described as belonging to one of my favorite sf sub-genres: space opera. And while it certainly has all the elements of space opera (like spaceships, intrigue, being set in the far future, etc.) it simply did not work for me.
The story revolves around an ancient artifact known as the January Dancer, a mysterious, shape-shifting object that grants obedience to the person who holds it. It was first discovered by Amos January and the story details how it moves from owner to owner and how it became the desired object of the multiple factions that populate this far future.
The overall story is recounted as a bar conversation between a mysterious figure and a bard. Despite these passages trying too hard to be philosophical, this presentation gives the story of the Dancer a feeling of myth or legend. (I was actually reminded here of Mike Resnick’s awesome storytelling prowess in Ivory. The difference in The January Dancer is that each story is not self-contained, but part of a larger narrative with the same characters, and the storytelling wasn’t anywhere near as compelling.) Adding to the book’s flavor, some of the dialects spoken seem to be descendants of current ones, something Flynn handles well since this is not the reading impediment that strange dialects can sometimes be in other novels.
The setting is the far future where ancient humans (or “prehumans”) are long gone but our scientists like Newton and Einstein have been remembered as gods. Yet for all that distance that Flynn puts between now and then, there exist a large handful of anachronistic names. For example, one of the major pathways between worlds (which exist as predefined stationary highways) is called Palisades Parkway. I’m sorry…am I in outer space or New Jersey?
One of the nice features of rip-roaring space operas (should there be any other kind?) is characterizations. You have to have good guys to root for and bad guys to despise. The January Dancer has these, to be sure, but you’d be hard pressed to figure out who was whom. There are so many factions bouncing around, and so many characters with changing or hidden motives, that it was hard to keep track, and with my aversion to political science fiction, it was unlikely that I was going to try too hard to do so. In other words, I could have done without so much “Confederacy vs. League” back story. On the bright side, Flynn’s prose is well structured — some might say poetic — and sometimes humorous. The description of a space version of the Nigerian 419 scam was funny without being disruptive to the flow and feel.
Science fiction can be many things: prognosticator, extrapolator, warning…but its primary job is to entertain. The January Dancer felt more like a chore than entertainment.