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This is an old-ish book (mid-eighties) and not a terribly good one. I know that perfectly well. And yet, I like it a lot, have probably read it a dozen times now. And I'm long overdue to review it, since I took my login (veschke) from it in a fit of being unable to think of anything better a couple of years ago.

The setting is a far-future universe in which humans have formed extensive colonies and are still actively exploring new planets. It's "soft," optimistic, the universe is a friendly place science fiction.

The plot depends on several ideas that I simply cannot take seriously: first, that as we spread across the stars humanity is going to become even more provincial and culture-bound than it currently is, to the point that people will be able to spend several years with each other in close living and working conditions and somehow manage to learn not a single thing about one another's cultural sore points. The fact that different cultures have different ideas of what constitutes personal space and so forth is hardly an esoteric secret even on 21st-century Earth. Second, that (at least in the future) all different languages/cultures involve such different spacial and gestural components that you can identify a speaker of a given language from a distance by watching them move. Third, that at some point in our travels a significant number of human cultures will form that have never even heard of putting cut flowers in vases.

I mean, really. The sad thing is she could almost certainly have used many of the same elements without hammering them out to such ridiculous lengths.

Having such silly notions play a major role in an ostensibly serious plot is usually a fatal flaw for a novel in my eyes, but the characters are a saving grace in this one. Kagan is really much better at people than she is at ideas; the same problems show up in her story collection Mirabile and to a lesser extent in her Star Trek novel, Uhura's Song.

The main character, Tocohl Susumo, is a bit ubercompetent at times, but the supporting cast really make the book. Maggy, the computer whose personal development forms a major subplot; Om Im, a character who manages to have an idiosyncratic culture without seeming flatly defined by it; swift-Kalat, trying to determine if one of the native species called sprookjes on the world called Lassti are sentient; and of course the enigmatic sprookjes themselves.

As for the plot, it's a mystery novel--there's been an unexplained death, the possible exploitation of an entire planet lies at stake, the cult called the Inheritors of God are showing interest in the matter, and no one can figure out if sprookjes have a language or not--and it's all wrapped up rather neatly in the end, with a couple of twists that are actually very nicely done. The book moves quickly despite its relative length, and for me it makes a pleasant evening's read.

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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson