Reading an author’s first novel is always an interesting experience, “listening” to a fresh voice with perhaps something new to say. The writer’s reputation rests on her ability to convey an entertaining and thought provoking story, enough so readers will want to read more of the words the writer puts to paper. Karen Traviss has succeeded in doing all these things right in her debut novel, City of Pearl. This is a satisfying, stimulating novel of colonization, alien contact, and choices. While there is inherent inclusion of possible future technology, the strength of this novel, and its place as a great work of Science Fiction, is the implication of where humanity is going, as a society, and as a race. Like the best Speculative Fiction writers, Traviss confronts the reader and challenges the reader to ponder some very insightful and provocative questions about us, the society we live in, and where we may be in the future. We may be in some different places, but we may likely be facing some similar problems. While the novel may not provide all the answers we seek, it is sometimes the questions, and continually raising these questions that is more important.
The central character of this story is Shan Frankland, an Environmental Hazard Officer, who has been selected to lead the Thetis, a space-ship with a crew of space marines and scientists to the planet Cavanagh’s Star, a planet with a small human colony and rumors of intelligent alien life. When Shan arrives on the ship and the crew awakens from the cryo-sleep, she is in a difficult position being in charge of a crew she has not met and more importantly, in charge of people who initially resent her. This is one case where Traviss fleshes out an initial event in the novel, throughout the remainder of the story. Every instance in this novel effects the remaining story, not a word or scene is wasted. Immediately upon meeting Frankland, Traviss casts Shan into the mold of the reluctant hero, though as the story progresses, Shan evolves on her own from this initial mold into an engaging, admirable character quite her own.
Cavanagh’s Star is at the crux of conflict between three alien species, one eliminated and seeking return (isenj), one as the dominant, strong and protective, intelligent life form (the wess’har), and the third peaceful inhabitants (bezeri) seeking only to live their life uninterrupted. Of course, this is in addition to the colony of humans that settled on Cavanagh’s Star generations ago and live in grudging peace with the wess’har. The humans are a deeply Catholic religious group of people, having adapted well to the alien landscape. It is this group of humans Shan and her crew initially is charged with checking up on. Of course, the arrival of the crew of the Thetis throws things out of the norm, and sets the story in motion.
While Shan is the protagonist, Traviss does a great job of developing the remainder of the cast. Her skill in characterization is one of the many great things about this novel. From Shan Frankland to her second in command, Lindsay Neville to the colonist Joshua to the alien Aras, every character is believable, and when the story focuses on a particular character, you truly empathize with him or her. Her characters come off very natural and real, which is quite impressive since these are characters of a future and in one case a most strange alien. The reactions of each character, their interactions with each other, and to the story they are a part of was gripping and captivating.
Though this is a tale of the future, a lot of what was happening, in terms of the political climate potential turmoil and ramifications of the life on Cavanagh’s Star, as well as the role of the wess’har, really resonated. I could identify with the story more because of it and this provided for a rewarding reading experience.
Often, authors can fall into the trap of repeating themselves when trying to convey a particular plot point to the reader. Case in point – Traviss did repeatedly emphasize the alien-ness of Aras, it was not a case of the writer brow-beating the reader. Rather, through Shan and the other characters, she conveyed a great sense of bewilderment at the alien. The reader truly experiences Aras, not only through the eyes of the characters around him, but also through his own eyes.
Traviss’ economy of word and story in City of Pearl is brilliant, every word, every scene, serves the greater story, as a whole, and a great and satisfying story at that. This novel was gripping and left me wanting to read more of this world, the characters and the ramifications of the events in the novel. In this Traviss has succeeded. Fortunately, Traviss will be continuing the story in Crossing the Line, a novel I am anticipating with great enthusiasm.
Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford
© 2004 Rob H. Bedford