Monday, November 2, 2009

Book Review: 'The Game of Fox and Lion' by Robert R. Chase

3/5 Stars 

‘The Game of Fox and Lion’ (1986; 246 pp) was published by Ballantine and features an nicely done cover illustration by Darrell K. Sweet. (The image depicts Benedict, struggling to negotiate the high gravity of the Bestial's home planet, being helped into a motorized chair for easier transit).

Things are not going very well for John Lei Chiang, head of Chiang Biosynthetics and one of the 13 Councilors of the Centauran star system. Duplicitous Council members are plotting to drive him out of business and take over his markets for themselves. Some may even be conspiring to have him assassinated. And to make matters even worse, a race of rebellious human / animal hybrids, the ‘Bestials’, have set up their own civilization in the outer planets of the Centaurus system, and are launching destructive raids on Centauran outposts.

In desperation, Chiang sets off on a quest to find one Paul Renard, last of the ‘multi-neural capacitants’, a man genetically engineered to process information arising from complex systems with superhuman ease and clarity. Sentiment against genetically engineered humans has driven Renard into hiding and his whereabouts are a mystery. But Chiang succeeds in finding Renard on the remote planet Ariel, where Renard has joined a Catholic religious order and taken the name Benedict.

With a nuanced display of power, Chiang coerces Benedict into working for him. Upon arrival back at Centaurus, the other Councilors are less than pleased to learn that Chiang has a potential ‘evil genius’ in his employ. Measures to strip Chiang of his power and wealth are soon set in motion. Can Benedict act in time to save Chiang Biosynthetics ? Can he also act in time to prevent the Bestials from ravaging the entire Centaurus system ? Does Benedict have an covert agenda of his own that guides his actions ?

‘Game’ bases its title on a phrase from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, and Benedict behaves in a manner akin to that played by the Catholic Church clergy in providing wisdom about statecraft to sundry princes, kings, and dukes during the time of the Renaissance. This is both the book’s strength and its weakness. The novel’s emphasis on interstellar politics (along with a sub-plot about the moral issues concerning the human nature of genetically engineered people) is related in a deliberate manner, and by the time I reached the book’s half-way point my interest was flagging.

Fortunately, from the half-way point on, ‘Game’ starts to pick up momentum as the story line focuses on a series of engagements between opposing fleets of spaceships. To author Chase’s credit, these battle scenes rival those of ‘Ender’s Game’ in their intensity and excitement, and while Benedict as a formidable strategist, the conflict is never one-sided, and the outcome never assured.

I suspect that readers desiring an expansive narrative with emphasis on frequent military action, as per novels by John Ringo or David Drake, may find ‘Game’ underwhelming. However, readers looking for a more cerebral, character-driven type of space opera will find ‘Game’ rewarding despite its slowly paced first half.

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