Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Book Review: 'Slow Fall to Dawn' by Stephen Leigh
(first book of the 'Neweden' trilogy)

3/5 Stars

‘Slow Fall to Dawn’ (1981; 165 pp) is the first book in the so-called ‘Neweden’ trilogy by author Stephen Leigh. The other volumes are ‘Dance of the Hag’ (1983) and ‘A Quiet of Stone' (1984). The paperback version of ‘Dawn’ features an artistic picture of two men surveying the fossil skeleton of an extinct animal (but unfortunately the artist is uncredited).

‘Dawn’ takes place on the backwater planet of Neweden, whose sociopolitical structure revolves around an elaborate guild system, representatives of which vie for power in an Assembly ruled by a ‘Li-Gallant’ named Vingi . While the planet has access to high technology items, such as vibro blades, laser pistols, force fields, and anti-grav, it is shabby and quasi-medieval in character, with everyone wearing cloaks, making do with humble buildings constructed of natural materials, and negotiating cramped, trash-strewn cities on foot rather than by personal aircar or hovercraft.

Rather than experience the disruptive effects of war or criminal enterprise, the guilds have agreed to settle serious disputes by use of an assassin guild called the Hoorka. Once a contract has been made, the victim is notified and given 12 hours to evade the assassins; if he or she survives until the following dawn, they are granted their life. About 15 % of the intended victims survive a Hoorka contract, so the odds are in the assassin guild’s favor. Only successful assassinations result in public disclosure of the contractor.

The main character in the novel is the Gyll the Thane, the leader of the Hoorka, a middle-aged man who founded the guild and has steered it into a position of some influence in the politics of Neweden. As the story opens a duo of Hoorka fail to kill their target, a guild chief named Gunnar. The survival of Gunnar necessarily leads to tension with the man who issued the contract for his extirpation: Li-Gallant Vingi. The resultant narrative is mainly focused on the various intrigues and machinations of the Hoorka, their disgruntled client Vingi, and the director of a galactic Federation outpost on Neweden, Dame d’Embry, who has her own reasons for wanting to see the Hoorka gain access to contracts elsewhere in the Federation.

A major sub-plot deals with the Thane’s confrontations with Aldhelm, his protégé, over the future of the Hoorka; as age grips the Thane he becomes less certain of his abilities to lead the guild, but is Aldhelm the best choice for a successor ?

The setting of a senescent world gripped by antiquated politics and religious beliefs, with technology serving as an uneasy accessory to relations with a distant, unsympathetic Federation, readily calls to mind the novels of Jack Vance. This is not a bad thing. Author Leigh writes with an ornate, but very readable, style, and while the book doesn’t possess a particularly action-filled narrative, enough things keep unfolding over its brief course so as to hold the reader’s attention. In this regard ‘Dawn’ offers a better read than many contemporary SF novels twice its length. I finished the book curious to move on to the second volume of the trilogy.

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