REVIEW SUMMARY: A new author does well in some areas but overall comes up a bit short.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Michael is kidnapped and taken into the future, where he finds himself embroiled in an interplanetary civil war. But things aren’t as simple as they appear, as Michael’s past starts to catch up to him in the future.
PROS: Good small-group action sequences and interesting characters that change throughout the book. Middle section was highly enjoyable.
CONS: Writing is challenged at the beginning with text that was hard to read. Ending struggled with a space opera flavor that didn’t work.
BOTTOM LINE: This book by first-time author J.W. Benford is a book I really wanted to like, however there are enough flaws that keep it from being a book I think will have broad appeal. I am looking forward to future efforts by this talented writer.
The plot overall is a good one – Michael Terrenias is a human snatched from the past that finds himself in a multi-planetary civil war. The city he grew up in and loved is destroyed, and he joins in with the group that would like to reestablish the traditional government. However as things progress Michael realizes that he has knowledge and abilities that he shouldn’t have. Rapidly we realize that Michael isn’t who he thought he was, but is in fact an alien king who was exiled to the past. His people cast him out for failuring to bring about a reasonable end to a centuries-old galactic conflict. This war between the alien species turns out to be the driving force behind the smaller human-scale conflict and Michael find himself right back where he was prior to his exile having to work to defeat his species’ ancient enemy.
The first third of the book is a little shaky. It starts out somewhat awkward with a style that makes it hard to read. The sentence structure, dialog, and descriptions don’t always make sense and convey what I think the author is looking for. Perhaps this was done to partially convey Michael’s alien nature, but if so it didn’t work – it was confusing and stilted to me. Overall the dialog is weakest in this section, with the characters seeming to be wooden and non-expressive.
The middle portion of the book really takes off though, and becomes an action book with an interesting set of characters and exciting combat sequences. I was thrilled to be reading this part because I felt that Benford had overcome his challenges in the first part and settled down. The action here is mostly smaller in scope, with the larger space opera elements on hold as we see the team Michael works with, the personal interactions between them, and the adventures they have. If the complete book had been at this level, we’d be talking a 3 star book for sure – maybe even 4.
However, the last portion of the book again becomes difficult to understand. After Michael begins to fight the major galactic battle the book becomes muddled and character motivations are hard to fathom. His human wife and the characters around him seem to become aloof and no longer emotionally invested in the outcome. There is also a strange sequence that I believe was meant to portray the enemies as evil (and thus worthy of destruction) but instead has them appearing just odd. Even the humans behavior around them is odd. Again, perhaps this was done to show inscrutable alien nature, but if so it didn’t work for me.
So in the end, I’d say that Benford can write a small-scale story very well. Those sections when a small team of people are battling personal demons, a civil war, and the issues that surround just them – the writing was very good. But when it branches into full space opera, the author struggles. This didn’t ruin the book for me, but the ending wasn’t near as satisfying as it could have been as a result. I will be watching for future Benford efforts though – he has enough talent that with a publisher (and editor!) behind him, he could turn out some very interesting works in the future.