Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: 'West of January' by Dave Duncan

3 / 5 Stars

‘West of January’ (343 pp) was published by Del Rey in August 1989; the cover artist is uncredited.

On Vernier, the planetary rotation is so slow that a single day lasts for centuries. Instead of longitude and latitude, territory is measured by months and weeks, respectively. One-half the planet – equivalent to the distance spanned by six months of longitude - is bathed in sunlight, and is the Day Side. The other half is spanned by six months of longitude and is in darkness – this is the Night Side. Monday is the same latitude as the northern poles; Wednesday the Equator; and Sunday the southern poles. As Vernier slowly rotates about its axis, the dayside months shift eastwards into twilight, and the darkside months shift westwards into sunlight.

[The book provides maps at the end of every chapter to help orient the reader to this peculiar feature of Vernier’s astronomy.]

The descendants of the Terrans who colonized the planet several thousand years ago have splintered into various races scattered around the daylight side of the planet: herdsmen who wander the vast grasslands, wetlanders who live in proximity to the swampy areas, snake men who dwell in the jungles, and sea folk, who live amid the waves, camped on giant rafts of floating vegetation.

Technology has atrophied to a stone-age level. A small but influential group of learned men, the ‘angels’, dwell in an encampment called ‘Heaven’ near the twilight side of the planet. 

From their redoubt, the angels venture outwards on large, wind-powered carts, to periodically urge the tribes – ignorant of their world’s astronomy - to move ever West, staying out of reach of the ever-advancing, devastating solar Equinox, in which sunlight strikes the surface at a perpendicular angle, with merciless intensity, for decades.

‘West of January’ is narrated in the first-person by its protagonist, Knobil, the undersized son of a herdsman. Over the course of the novel Knobil grows to adulthood, and experiences various adventures among the tribes populating Vernier.

In many ways, the episodic narrative of ‘West’ mimics, in a readable way, the traditional Burroughsian fantasy adventure in which a doughty swordsman sets out to make his mark across his strange and colorful world.

However, Knobil is not the typical Burroughsian hero. Author Duncan takes pains to cast Knobil as a more ordinary hero than most, someone lacking in imagination, and thus, our protagonist is regularly subjected to use, and abuse, by the less-friendly inhabitants of Vernier.

These passages of mayhem and misery help propel the story along, and in their abeyance, the narrative tends to drag; for example, I found the chapters dealing with Knobil’s sojourn among the Seafolk to be rather slow and rather dull.

‘West of January’ is a competent, if not particularly memorable, sf adventure novel. The premise of the centuries-long Day is worked into the machinations of the plot with some skill, and Knobil, despite his faults, is a likeable character. Readers with a willingness to be entertained by a novel with a deliberate, gradual approach to storytelling may find ‘West’ worth their while.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Signature in lower left corner indicates cover artist is Neal McPheeters.