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Strange Music
by Alan Dean Foster
Del Rey, $27.00, 288pp
Published: November 2017

Having revisited the original Pip & Flinx trilogy, I felt comfortable leaping ahead to the new one, 'Strange Music', which is currently the fifteenth in the series. Looking back, I see that Foster writes these books in bursts.

The first couple of books, back when he was a fresh new writer, came in 1972 and 1973: 'The Tar-Aiym Krang', which kicked everything into motion, and 'Bloodhype', which I haven't read yet because it got shunted off down the series, to be currently numbered 11. He returned in 1977 to complete that original trilogy, with 'Orphan Star' and 'The End of the Matter'. Then he returned every half-decade or so to add another volume: a prequel, 'For Love of Mother-Not', in 1983; then 'Flinx in Flux' in 1988, and 'Mid-Flinx' in 1995. In 2001, he returned to the series in earnest, knocking out seven more books in the 2000s, before letting it sit for eight years. I enjoyed this one but it's no triumphant return after such a gap.

Having not read the books in between, it seems that Flinx was a busy chap in them. Late in the book, he thinks about how far he's come and how much he's done in a telling sentence: 'He had vanquished the Great Emptiness, was privy to a few secrets of the Universe, had survived Midworld, visited the AAnn homeworld of Blassussar, and even met and befriended the AAnn emperor himself!'

He's also found himself a girl, Clarity Held, and they're living happily on the ocean world of Cachalot, which was the title of a standalone book in the wider Humanx Commonwealth series in 1980. It's worth mentioning that, while this is the fifteenth Pip & Flinx book, Foster has written two trilogies in the same universe and eight standalone novels, plus a few short stories. He really does live up to his reputation as a prolific writer. I have a lot to catch up on!

Mostly Flinx and Clarity talk to the whales, but Sylzenzuzex comes to visit, a big deal for a Thranx because they don't like water. It's a semi-official visit because the Commonwealth goverment apparently wants Flinx dead, even though he's saved both civilisation and the entire galaxy. However, they're in need of his help even more, because they have a problem that they believe only he can solve.

There's a world called Largess that's at a sensitive state in its evolution. It's aware of what's beyond its skies but it hasn't joined the Commonwealth yet because it's still transitioning to the point where it can officially request assistance. One of the requirements is that government has to shift from a regional level to a global one. Until that's done, trade is limited and information about advanced technology cannot be shared. We'd find that requirement tough and the Larians are having trouble with it too, not least because someone is apparently violating the restrictions.

Normally, this would be a routine enforcement job but it's made complex by some unique aspects to Larian communication. For a start, they sing rather than speak, which is a pretty cool concept that neatly precludes automated translation tech. What's more, the Larian singspeech is inherently tied to their emotions and so an empath like Flinx would have a relatively easy job getting information out of them.

And they need to find him or her very quickly, because they're doing a lot of damage in a clear attempt to sabotage any chance of world government. Largess is structured like clans and those clans, known as leeths, may be about to go to war because Preedir ah nisa Leeh, the Firstborn of the Hobak of Borusegahm, someone very much as important as that combination name and title sounds, has been kidnapped. So Flinx has to both find the kidnapper and return the kidnapped girl before war erupts.

Flinx takes the job, of course, because we wouldn't have a book otherwise, but my biggest problem with it is how he does so. He seems modest enough at the outset, as Syl talks him into it, but he's too arrogant when he gets to Largess. He doesn't really make any plans, just figures out the direction he needs to go and trusts implicitly in his improvisational skill to get there. I liked his planning in 'Orphan Star'. I didn't like his lack of it here, especially once he realises that he's in trouble: he can read the emotions of the Larians fine, just not when they're speaking/singing.

I wasn't convinced by this either. Singspeech may be a fascinating concept and Foster thankfully doesn't overuse it, but it isn't a particularly easy thing to read. It manifests in flowery phrases with commas between them, so ends up sounding vaguely Shakespearean. I wonder how that'll find voice in the audiobook version! I was never sure of its intonation or its depth of meaning.

Foster even resorts to plot conveniences to keep his story moving forward. Flinx needs to find a very particular person to act as guide. Guess who he promptly has to step in and save at the first place he stays? And Pip, the mini-drag who spends most of this book inside a metal walking stick, gets hauled into action whenever needed, only to vanish until next time. That's annoyingly convenient and a disservice to a character who never really got full partnership in the whole Pip & Flinx thing, even if her name tends to get listed first!

What I did like was the flora and fauna of Largess, which I'm happy to say is as wild and wonderful as it ever was back when Foster was starting out as a writer and I was busy learning to walk. There's a creature called a Door Watcher, for obvious reasons, because it's a living lintel that flows down around a doorway to protect a household. There are shomagr, cattle whose heads move around their bodies at will, even from one side to the other. Flinx and his guide, Wiegl, travel north on brunds, which are sort of like giraffes without necks. They just have to watch out for grynachs.

The ending is good, including a very capable twist, but it arrives too fast and doesn't get much development. I liked where we ended up but it should have taken more careful structuring to get through it. I would have liked a lot more background on Largess, too; more than Foster was willing to provide, especially towards the end of the book, but there is some and what there is works well. Without that, we don't add much to the series in this volume.

Don't get me wrong, 'Strange Music' a satisfying read, but it doesn't feel essential at all, just a diversion for Flinx in case he's getting restless chatting with the whales on Cachalot. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For other books in the Pip & Flinx series click here

For other books by Alan Dean Foster click here

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