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Larissa
by Emily Devenport
Penguin, $7.99, 284pp
Published: 1993

Emily Devenport will be the Local Author Guest of Honor at CoKoCon 2019 and I'm really looking forward to that, so I've pulled her books off the shelf for a monthly run-through. In September, I reviewed her debut novel, 'Shade', and this is a sort of sequel. Now, I say 'sort of' because it isn't a sequel in any traditional way but, if I've learned anything about Emily Devenport's writing thus far, it's that she has little intention to do anything in the traditional way.

Initially, this seems like a completely different book. Our lead is clearly the Larissa of the title and we start out on the planet of Hook, to which Shade has never been. She's a young lady of sixteen who's particularly good at sports, in this instance the Q'rin sports of Half-G and Double-G. I'm still not entirely sure how these work, but Devenport memorably describes the latter: "It's like a combination of chess and basketball, played in lead suits with a medicine ball." Larissa is good enough that her human team ends up playing the much bigger Q'rin and acquitting themselves decently.

If that makes her life sound like a gift, think again. 'Larissa' is just as dark as 'Shade' was and that starts early. The very first line of this novel is, "This may sound deranged, but I think I owe my interest in knives to the serial killer who murdered my mother when I was nine." She uses those knives to kill a would-be-rapist in the school showers when she's sixteen, leaving his cohorts wounded. And that's it for Larissa's time on Hook. She leaves in the same way Shade left Earth, by hooking up with a space coyote, this time for a journey to Moasaii on the 'Obsidian Butterfly', so named seven years before Laurell K. Hamilton's book of that title.

She never gets there, though, because she meets John Lovelock on the Butterfly, whom she falls both for and in with. He's not the sort of hook-up you might expect Larissa to go for, given that she's a sixteen-year-old virgin of colour with morals, even if she's wanted on Hook for murder, and he's a forty-year-old pasty white drug dealer. Yeah, she's black, even if the cover artist completely failed to notice that fact. One of the things I liked immediately about this book is that nobody seems to care. When you hang out with entirely different species, maybe the colour of your skin ceases to have quite such importance attached to it.

What's important for the 'sort of sequel' is that meeting and connecting with Lovelock changes her destination to Z'taruh, the setting for most of 'Shade'. We're forty pages in by this point, but we soon start to recognise the odd location, character and eventually scene. This isn't happening after 'Shade'; it's happening at the same time, in the same places and often with the same people. Some scenes are the same, but we're watching them from an entirely different perspective. In other words, as Devenport tells Larissa's story, she's also bolstering the stories she told in 'Shade', not only Shade's but those of supporting characters too.

I really liked this approach. This is a very different story, Larissa being different from Shade in most ways and with a different path in life, but there are similarities. Both become Deadtowners, though Larissa isn't any good at that at all, unlike Shade, so finds her way into the Pits, instead, to fight for a living with those knives that she's so good with. Both end up taking a Q'rin lover. And both end up in a similar situation, which I won't spoil, just in case you haven't read either book.

I also liked the little connections that seem meaningless on the face of it but make a point when we see them in different ways from the perspectives of different people involved. For instance, during Knossos's unfair trial for vagrancy, it's Larissa who impulsively lends Shade the extra two credits she needs to pay the fine that he can't. There's no deliberate teaming up there, just two different people finding common ground by sharing a moment for different reasons. It's telling.

And these little connections keep on coming. For those who've read 'Shade', we meet her again, as well as Chaz the Lyrri, Knossos the Aesopian elephant man, Blackie and Jake, Donokh the Q'rin and others, all the way down to the scorpion woman working in the animal show. We visit the Salvation Army and the fortress that's to be built in Deadtown. We hear about the raid on the Baby School and we're there for the inappropriate scene between Dorrin and Shade. These perspectives really help to grow that first book, something that's not unwelcome, as Devenport was clearly upping her game here. This is technically a better novel, with a better story arc for the leading lady. Improving the previous book in the process is a neat trick indeed.

As with 'Shade', this isn't going to be a book for everyone. It's dark in that very specific way that early nineties novels so often were, when authors realised that they could push that particular envelope and started to do so. Like 'Shade', it's easy to date, even if you don't look at the copyright at the beginning.

Also, while most of the books that followed that approach were male oriented, this one's clearly written by a woman because she gets the daily issues that affect all women but of which men have traditionally been blissfully unaware, until maybe the Me Too movement raised awareness on social media. Larissa is a tough cookie who makes a decent living fighting others, often men, with knives. That doesn't mean people, especially men, always treat her with the well-earned respect she's due. I should add that Devenport is never preachy but she also doesn't shy away from the dark side of daily life for women and that's especially notable today.

I liked 'Shade' but I liked 'Larissa' more. Devenport was obviously already improving as a writer, even this quickly in her career. I'm looking forward to seeing that trend continue as I work through her early books. I now have her first two and her last one under my belt, but there's a quarter of a century and seven novels to discover in between. Next month: 'Scorpianne', which doesn't look to be related to 'Shade' or 'Larissa' on the face of it. Let's find out in November! ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Emily Devenport click here

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