Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Review of Mary Sisson's Novel Trang

Mary Sisson
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Although it's been years since I read them, I was reminded a little bit of Keith Laumer's Retief stories while reading Trang.  But only a little bit.  Phillipe Trang is also a diplomat, but he's cut from an entirely different cloth that Retief.  For one thing, he's more idealistic.  For another, mankind is just entering what passes for galactic society in Trang

Most of the novel takes place five years after the discovery of a portal in the Saturn system (that's the moon system of the planet Saturn, in our solar system, in case you were wondering).  Phillipe Trang is a rising young diplomat who has been selected to be the first ambassador to the alien station on the other side of the portal.

From the beginning things begin to go wrong.  First of all, instead of having United Police as his security detail, Trang is horrified to discover he's been assigned a squadron of Special Forces.  United Police are less inclined to use deadly force than Special Forces.  Also, SF members tend to say what they think, whereas the UP keep their mouths shut.  And the SF talk like you would imagine hardened killers, as Phillipe thinks of them, to talk.  If you're offended by hard profanity, this might not be the book for you. 

There's immediate friction between Phillipe and the leader of the SF over his security arrangements.  Before things are over, he'll be glad they're there. And that's before the alien messiah shows up proclaiming him to be the Chosen One.

Of course, all is not peace and love among the aliens, either.  There are factions among them, and the crustacean-like Hosts, who built the station, refuse to change anything about how they run things.  Who built the portals is a mystery.

This book is essentially anthropological science fiction.  Much of the conflict comes from the politics, although there are some combat scenes.  Sisson presents a number of different aliens races.  We don't learn a great deal about all of them, but she does give us some insights into the Hosts.  While I would have liked there to have been more detail about them as well as some of the other aliens, there were distinct differences between the cultures that were more than just physiology and appearance.

The novel wasn't without what I would consider a few minor flaws.  Several characters are introduced in the early chapters, given names and backgrounds, then disappear never to be seen again.  I don't know if they will be making an appearance in future installments or not.  With the exception of the astrophysicist on the shuttle to Titan, I tend to doubt it.  I'm fairly certain we'll be seeing her again.  Anthropological science fiction can be a little slow.  For the most part this wasn't, especially once the machinations among the aliens picked up speed about halfway through, the second chapter tended to slow things down a bit. Trang attends a reception in his honor just before he departs to Titan, and this was where most of the characters we don't see again are introduced. 

As interested as I was in the aliens, it was Trang's interactions with his security team that I found most intriguing.  (The game of laser tag with the Swimmer drone and one of the team members was a great touch.)  The members of the team came off as individuals, not cardboard cutouts.  Trang had to do as much to understand their culture as he did the cultures of the aliens.  And there were hints at one point of a possible future romantic relationship between him and the head of his security team.

This is the first novel in a projected four volume series, with the second currently due in either May or June.  Based on the blurb on her website (the books don't have their own pages), we're going to see more of a group of aliens called the Cyclopes.  If you enjoy anthropological sf, and you aren't put off by the language, this one might be for you.  While most of the major plotlines were resolved, there is enough left hanging for a natural sequel.

Now, production values.  Once again, an indie author has put together a book that is essentially error free.  I only noticed one typo (although I don't remember what page now).  There was an interactive table of contents.  The formatting was good, and the cover told you this was a novel set in space.  Somehow New York can't seem to figure this out. 

In summation.  While anthropological science fiction is not my first choice of subgenre (that would be space opera or hard science), I enjoyed this book.  It held my interest, made me care about what happened to the characters, and kept me reading.  Which is what I want from a book.

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