With Andre Norton’s aged novel Star Guard, Tom Holt’s new novel Doughnut, and Howard Andrew Jones’ Pathfinder tie-in novel Plague of Shadows, I’ve found three authors and books to review that have almost nothing in common. We all have our crosses to bear, do we not?
Andre Norton, a great forerunner (get it? Because she wrote Forerunner.) of science fiction, and considered by many to be the Grande Dame of SF, wrote a novel in 1953 titled Star Guard. It was actually the second novel in a world later dubbed Central Control, in which Terrans, considered to be the ideal mercenaries of the galaxy, are forced to pay for access to the stars with blood. Of course, the two novels in the ‘series’ have almost nothing to do with one another, making the ending of Star Guard unduly incomplete.
Told from the perspective of Kana Karr, a newly enlisted Swordsman sent to an un-extraordinary planet to quell a common rebellion, Norton spins a story that reminds me of legendary marches across hostile territory from the ancient world. The character arc is something of a coming of age tale through a military science fiction lens. Most interesting though is that it’s one of the only novels I’ve read that could be characterized as an intergalactic dystopian novel where aliens oppress a complicit human population. By the time Star Guard wraps up, Kana has found the beginnings of a plan to rebel and overthrow the system, but Norton leaves it there — and me feeling thoroughly unsatisfied.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling unsatisfied I turn to doughnuts (that’s called a segue). However, Tom Holt’s Doughnut isn’t necessarily the kind of comfort food I expected from the title. It’s more like a mind-fuck-make-you-laugh-but-in-a-British-way-so-sometimes-you-don’t-laugh-because-you’re-not-British. Does that make sense? No? Well, not very much of Doughnut makes sense either.
Starring expert physicist and all around social numb-nuts Theo Bernstein, Doughnut takes a long time and a lot of jokes to tell a story of redemption amid a technology that enables travel between universes. It’s entertaining, mostly, but at one point in the novel Holt says, “Life, he decided, is a bit like an optimist reading a Martin Amis novel; he keeps going, no matter what, just in case it gets good towards the end.” I admit feeling the same way about Doughnut at times, with the exception that I felt rather sated at its end.
Over the last twelve months the author that has pleased me more than fried dough (segue!!) is Howard Andrew Jones. I entered into his stab at Pathfinder Roleplaying Game tie-in, via Plague of Shadows, with some measure of trepidation. Jones’s writing has an intelligence level that I feared would be lost as he was subjugated to someone else’s vision. The novel sputters to start, but by its conclusion I feel that Jones could write a sporting goods shopping list and I’d be riveted.
There’s too many times where the rule book and dice rolling bleeds into the narrative, yet Jones manages to tell a simple (painfully simple at times) story with a measure of refinement. He layers in flashbacks, and curious bits of world building, that hint at something larger than the standard dungeon crawl object fetching that’s such a staple in roleplaying fiction. While I found Jones’s original novels, Desert of Souls and Bones of the Old Ones, exceptional, Plague of Shadows is merely competent. So far as tie-in fiction goes that makes it near the best of its ilk.