Michael Flynn’s space opera The January Dancer is many things, part caper, part future myth, part mosaic novel; all of which come together in a very interesting stew of a novel. The object from which the book’s title is derived is a pre-human artifact first discovered by Captain Amos January on a relatively routine archaeological expedition. Human expansion is very widespread throughout the galaxy and the future is far enough beyond our time that the characters refer to Earth as Old Earth and speak of it in nigh-mythological terms.
Keeping with the mythological tone, Flynn framed and structured the novel in a relatively unique manner for a Space Opera. The novel begins in a bar with a harper trying to sing songs and tell stories. The focus of the stories is the January Dancer, the ancient pre-human artifact that seems to bounce from one owner to the next with the potential to give its owner complete mastery over men. To put the timeline of this universe in focus, while the January Dancer predates humans, humans have been around the galaxy long enough that Newton, Einstein and Darwin are considered gods because they history is so far back. Flynn also named many of the far-future locales and things after places from the 20th/21st Century like the Palisades Parkway.
The mosaic element of the novel made it somewhat difficult for me to completely get a true feel for the novel and story. Once the January Dancer passed out of one person’s hands, it was on to the bar and the harper who would recount the next path the ancient talisman would take. It was only about halfway into the novel that I began to feel ‘settled’ about who was who and what was what. I really thought the opening ‘story’ of January’s crew’s discovery of the artifact was engaging and pulled me into the story, the characters Flynn surrounded January with were pretty well drawn. The only thing that didn’t read to genuine, for the characters in the novel in general, were those that spoke with heavy dialected accents.
Another element that added to the mythic resonance of the novel was the names Flynn gave the characters, they seemed right out of an old pulp SF novel or serial. There’s Amos January, who lends his name to the title and object, a man who goes by the name of Greystoke, another with the name of Grimpen and a character by the name of "Handsome" Jack Garrity. The main setting or hub of the galaxy is named after God, Jehovah. The religious implications of this weren’t touched upon in great detail, but add to the mythic quality of the novel. As I said, this mythic feel of a far future was done very nicely by Flynn.
Ultimately, the novel was a bit too uneven for my tastes. The multiple points of view/mosaic nature of the novel was too jarring for me to really get into the novel and enjoy it. I liked the ideas, I liked the sense of a caper story with which Flynn flavored the novel, but I was unable to connect with the narrative as a whole.