Ten books and a dozen years into his career, Steven Barnes finally got to wrap up his second trilogy and the first published solo. I've enjoyed all his novels thus far, to varying degrees, but these three feel like they're the closest to his heart of all his published novels thus far. I hope to ask him about that at CoKoCon 2022, where he'll be our Author Guest of Honor.
This trilogy is about Aubry Knight, who has moved onward and upward since book one, 'Street Lethal'. In that one, he was a nullboxer who had been framed for murder and locked up in a maximum security prison. Life isn't good for him, as he escapes and seeks revenge. It's improved in book two, 'Gorgon Child', but he's in much better shape when this finalé starts. He's spent eight years leading the reconstruction of Mazetown, fifty square blocks of downtown LA that had been severely damaged when the big one hit California. He and Promise, his wife, have become powerful people indeed.
But that means that they've also become targets in a different way to the years before when they were hunted by the government. This time, they're hunted by a different government, that of Pan Africa, a global superpower built by bringing six countries together into one under the leadership of Phillipe Swarna, who is quite the character. He lives in Pan Africa, but in Caernarvon Castle, the one that used to be in Wales before he had it moved over brick by brick. He has his own bestiary, too; surrounding the castle but, being the mid-21st century, it's dinosaurs. His miniature brontosaurus is a delight, but he has giants too.
Swarna also has a set of genetically grown siblings named for Japanese numbers (Japan is a big sponsor of Pan Africa) and he's sending them Stateside to take out Aubry and his son/daughter, who now goes by Leslie and identifies as female even if Aubry still calls her him. This was published in 1993 so it's way ahead of the pronoun discussion that has become such an important factor in the last decade. There is a reason why Promise calls her her but Aubry calls her him, a neat reason that plays into where this book, and indeed this trilogy, is going.
The problem is that they miss. They take out a friend instead, Warrick's sister Mira, with a pulse rifle. Needless to say, Aubry is pissed. He is determined to get revenge, something he's been successful at in the past, but proceedings end up playing into his hands because other parties have the same goal: to bring an end to Swarna's regime. They bring Aubry into their organisation and their plan and this becomes something else yet again.
The other trilogy Barnes had completed at this point was 'Dream Park', written with Larry Niven, and each of those three books followed a similar template. I have my favourite and it might not be yours but, if you like one you're pretty much likely to like the others too. These Aubry Knight books don't do that. It may be fair to say that they do work as a trilogy but each of the three does a different job in a different way.
Part of that is the tone. The first book is very dark, so dark that it could be described as depressing. The second ditches that tone, though it's still dark. This third could easily have been written similarly to the first, being another revenge story, but the tone is completely different. We want Aubry to calm down in the first book, but we're with him all the way this time out.
Part of it is the genre. It's science fiction throughout, but it flirts with a host of others. 'Street Lethal' is often a men's adventure book. 'Gorgon Child' has the most vehement science fiction but it's an action movie in prose. Here, 'Firedance' pretty much turns into a spy novel and we're let in on the planning of the operation and kept in suspense as it's carried out, with all the things that go right and the things that go wrong, not to forget the twists that stem from that and the wildcards that enter into the equation.
Part of it is just the writing approach. What's new here is that the length of the chapters is much shorter, so much so that it initially took me aback. It's a way to ramp up the pace, which feels as fast as the previous book without as much overt chasing going on. What Aubry does is more proactive than reactive, so much of what happened in 'Gorgon Child' being a reaction to something that happens or a realisation. This is more intricate, more planned. It's less of a thriller and more of a suspense story.
It also takes a very different turn late on, as Aubry connects with the past he never knew and we find explanations for who he is and why he's the way he is. I liked this section a great deal, though it does somewhat lessen the pace for a while. Some readers may have a problem with that. It frustrated me a little but I ended up being fine with it.
The only negative comment I'll throw out about 'Firedance' is that Barnes, who had done so well in so many previous novels with extrapolating technology into the future, didn't do so well here. That's something I'm willing to forgive, as it's a dangerous business trying to guess at where tech will go next year, let alone forty years hence, but sometimes getting it wrong is jarring. This isn't as jarring as, say, a key plot point in William Gibson's cyberpunk masterpiece, 'Neuromancer' hinging on payphones, but we're a few decades into our future and Barnes has characters use pagers and dial into computer systems and save data onto tapes. The reader doesn't have to work in IT to be taken aback.
I enjoyed this novel and I adored parts of it, but I think I'd rank it behind 'Gorgon Child' as the second best of the trilogy. I had a lot of problems with 'Street Lethal' and none to speak of here, so I'd rank it much higher than that one. And what seems weirdest is that, even with such variance across the three books in so many different ways, it still plays pretty well as a trilogy. Aubry Knight is given a fantastic story arc and, while we might not have expected it early on, it plays out very well indeed.
With two trilogies now finished, Barnes only has one more to go in the science fiction genre, which is the 'Heorot' trilogy, written with both Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The third book didn't come out until this year, but the second is next on my list. It's 'Beowulf's Children', published in 1995, and I'm very much looking forward to it. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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