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REVIEW: The January Dancer by Michael Flynn

REVIEW SUMMARY: It seemed to have all the elements of entertaining space opera, yet failed to be compelling.


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.

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.

4 Comments on REVIEW: The January Dancer by Michael Flynn

  1. Matte Lozenge // January 6, 2009 at 1:15 pm //

    I liked January Dancer a lot more than you seem to have. The ambiguity of the characters didn’t bother me at all; in fact I prefer it and find it more subtle and realistic than the usual good guys vs. baddies narrative. On some points I agree with you — Flynn tries too hard to be profound, and every page seems to contain a line that’s trying for immortal aphorism status. The general take on the power of storytelling and music is badly overwrought and sentimentalized.

    What I liked most was the same thing I liked about The Wreck of the River of Stars: Flynn’s perspective on the folly of plans and goals, shifting loyalties and motivations, and the place of morality in those situations. The book kept me absorbed in spite of its flaws. Three and a half stars from me!

  2. I had similar feelings about the book  it started out well. I had relatively high hopes and those hopes weren’t met. 

  3. The “Pre-Humans” aka the “people of sand and iron” are established multiple times as aliens that predate humanity’s expansion from terra, and not ancient humans.

    Not only that, the nature of the pre-humans is explicity revealed during the culmination of the story.  (And is in fact shown to be the driving force behind the entire plot.)


    I’m wondering if you missed the payoff when all the plot threads merge at the end.

  4. I actually am enjoying this but it took about 100 pages to get into it. The style is very different and the organizational structure challenging but I think it’s intended to be mysterious and confusing in how things are unveiled and I’ve really taken to it.

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