The January Dancer
The Monthly Picks section of the local library never fails to have something intriguing. I’m not sure who chooses the books, I guess it’s just an assortment of whatever new paperbacks have come in. I’ve grabbed several things at random however, when I recognize a name. These tend to be sudden additions to the reading list and are hit or miss. In this case, it was a promising book cover involving spaceships and a name I hadn’t read since he co-wrote Falling Angels with Niven and Pournelle lo these many years ago. Flynn also won a Seiun Award this year, so I figured there must be something worthwhile in the book and took The January Dancer home with me. I must also confess that the blurb on the back sucked me in. It’s natural for books to have little happy reviews from peer authors or well-known critics, but this one skipped that and went straight to brazen self-promotion. January is “as thrilling a yarn as any ever in the history of SF,” according to itself. Who could say no? I’ve read quite a bit of SF in my day; I’d better not miss any yarn that is historically thrilling.
First of all, I must confess utter ignorance of Michael Flynn. Because I have read only this solo effort, I can’t place it in any sort of context or comment on the evolution of his style. All the observations to follow may be painfully obvious to longtime Flynn fans, but it’s all undiscovered country for me. To start with, Dancer is a bit of a genre mashup. It starts in a tavern, in a questionable part of a port town. A wandering minstrel walks in, plays some tunes, then starts talking to a mysterious scarred stranger about some wild story. There’s a lot of bombastic fantasy prose and pretty much everything one would expect in the sort of tavern that starts off an epic tale. It switches gears, though, as soon as the scarred stranger begins to talk, turning into much more straightforward SF prose. (Still a bit purple, but nothing like the intro.) The book keeps the story within a story structure right up to the end, with the main tale being SF and the minstrel’s end staying epic fantasy-esque. Does this work? I suppose that’s up to the reader. I prefer the main plot to the encapsulating plot, both in terms of story and prose, but some may feel differently. Oddly enough, the trope mixing reminded me most of Resnick’s Santiago, though that is a Western in space and Dancer is heroic fantasy. There are echoes of something else in the book, but I just haven’t been able to put my finger on what they are.
The story itself is a MacGuffin Hunt. One Captain January finds a mysterious relic, later named as The Dancer, and mayhem ensues. People chase after it, pirates invade planets, fleets attack each other, rival empires start grinding the gears of war, and of course various individuals find adventure, romance, danger and tragedy. To his credit, Flynn makes The Dancer slightly more engaging than a briefcase that is never opened. It felt a bit like an interstellar riff on the One True Ring, but not excessively so. Mostly though, the MacGuffin provides an excuse for Flynn to take us on a tour of the universe he has created. To his credit, it is a universe worth exploring and deserves the spotlight he shines on it. I don’t have any factual basis for this speculation, but the universe feels modeled on Europe in the Age of Empires. The major planets are generally ports on one or another of the superluminal superhighways, realities of time and distance preclude any sort of unified government, pirates infest the galactic backwater, and of course there are the aforementioned wandering minstrels. It’s a nice place to visit for those who like their Italian city-states mixed with starships. The book suggests that there are other tales to be told, which I would be happy to read.
There is one downside to the book. The enthusiastic book cover that claims, “It ends, as all great stories do, with shock and a beginning.” Flynn winds up the tension, hints at dire happenings, has his characters track down The Dancer across the galaxy, lets them double and triple cross each other, and then … it fizzles. Things quietly tidy themselves up, the stranger and the minstrel have one last flowery exchange, and the book ends. This wasn’t a toss-the-book-in-rage kind of ending, more of, “Oh, ok. Well, uh, what’s next?” I guess there was a little bit of shock – shock that things ended without a bang. It’s not a fatal quirk, but it was unexpected considering the high flying adventure that preceded it.
So, a final verdict. I’m not sure this is as thrilling a yarn as ever. I’m not ready to bump Dune, Hyperion, or The Book of the New Sun off a pedestal just yet, but I enjoyed The January Dancer.
Rating: Arsenal. Flowing, stylish football that makes everyone believe they’re mounting a serious title challenge, before flaming out in the end and backing into the Champion’s League.