Friday, May 11, 2012

City of Diamond

Space Opera Week!

This is a difficult book to classify, outside of the obvious it-takes-place-on-a-spaceship science fiction designation. It's also one of my favorite stories of all time, so give up any hopes you may have had for an objective review.

In a (probably futile) attempt to be objective, I'll qualify that: this book is certainly not everyone's cup of space-tea. I gave it to the cousin I've mentioned before, the one whose tastes in science fiction are roughly the polar opposite of mine, and he got about three pages in before handing it back and questioning my judgment, intelligence, and sanity - in fact, pretty much everything but my ancestry, for obvious reasons. He thought it was boring, and I'll give him this much: it starts out slow, hops between many different viewpoint characters before building up much momentum, and proceeds at an uneven pace from there. More like a series of vignettes, at times, than a connected narrative, the book doesn't weave together for longer than the duration of many readers' probable patience.

Nonetheless, I love this book more than I love Snickers ice cream bars.* This is truly a character-driven story, and I happen to like (or at least, like reading about) each and every one of the characters - feelings I know many will not share. Our protagonist, Tal, is the forbidden offspring of a human and an alien; forbidden because all of these offspring, before they were forbidden, committed murder while still children. Like the others, Tal is a violent sociopath with few scruples and even less understanding of what it means to be human. As far as anyone knows, he's the only "demon" who's managed to evade capture and execution long enough to reach adulthood, and to gain some perspective on human society and its rules. And that's where his story gets interesting; the author, Doris Egan writing under the pen name Jane Emerson, made the wise decision to introduce him in the middle of his story, leaving out all the mayhem he probably committed earlier in life.

That's wise for two reasons. First, while Tal perpetrates some serious, and seriously entertaining, murder and mayhem during the course of the book, it's suggested that he's calmed down quite a bit in the recent past; if he were even slightly more prone to blackmail, blowing people up, and betraying his friends than he is in this story, he wouldn't stay sympathetic for long. To many readers, his character will not be sympathetic at all, anyway. To those readers, I say: go pick up Anne of Green Gables** and read a different blog.

The second reason is simple: the character development possibilities inherent in a protagonist who's just discovering his own capacity for humanity are almost endless. What does friendship mean? Is love something desirable, or just a weakness? Why does everyone seem to like Pride and Prejudice so much? Tal struggles with these questions and more - but he still finds time for blackmail, of course.

The eponymous setting of City of Diamond, where most of the action takes place, provides a perfect backdrop foil for Tal's constant misunderstandings of human morals and customs. A massive city-ship populated by Redemptionists, a pseudo-Christian sect that took on, a few hundred years before, some of the worship practices of a group of advanced aliens who used blood - literal blood, not metaphorical wine-as-blood - in their rituals, the Diamond houses a rigidly stratified and highly superstitious society. Adrian, Protector (something between a president and a king) of the Diamond, gets his jollies by letting Tal (known as "Adrian's demon") stay on board and unsettle everyone by his mere presence, also giving him a high position in the aristocracy and the run of the place. In return for sanctuary aboard the ship, outside of which he's marked for execution on sight, Tal tacitly agrees to help advance Adrian's goals and also not murder or betray him unless it's really, really inconvenient not to.

There are two other ships: the Opal, even more strictly religious, the populace of which is kept in line by the humorless Ecclesiastical Police, and the Pearl, home to all those from any of the three ships who show the psychic talent necessary to be an oracle. (The oracles are available by phone for a fee per minute; unlike Earth's phone psychics, though, they're actually accurate.)

The novel's plot centers around a state marriage between Adrian and a girl from the rival Opal, everyone's search for a lost legacy of the alien Curosa called the Sawyer Crown, possession of which confers supreme authority over all three city-ships, and all the political and social machinations that ensue. Adrian drafts Tal and his female personal assistant/bodyguard/assassin/etiquette tutor to help find the Sawyer Crown before the leaders of the Opal can do so. Lots of people die in the process.

For the purposes of this review, I'm calling City of Diamond space opera, a term that's mostly applied pejoratively. That's not how I'm using it. I love space opera in all its forms, and this book - while it's not the Wham! Bam! Zap! Telepathic sex! variety of space opera people mostly think of when they hear the term - is basically a space adventure, and does have its share of melodrama and mildly outre sex acts.

The interesting, original characters help to set this book apart from others in its general genre, but it has one other rare, oh so painfully rare, distinction: it's simply written well. I mean that in every possible way it could be meant. The dialogue is realistic. The settings are described carefully, but not so carefully that you wonder, amidst page after page of detail, if anything's ever going to happen. Egan's prose is neither pretentious nor careless. She also manages to shift POV*** between third-person omniscient, third-person limited, and first-person without making the reader feel either like a ping-pong ball or simply baffled. There are also portions written in the epistolary style, something that has recently come back into fashion (Meg Cabot, with her light chick-lit novels written mostly in emails and journal entries, comes to mind) in a new and unpleasant way. This is more reminiscent of those early sci-fi stories that have memos or documents inserted in the text for "authenticity," and you know what? That style really does help build immersion in the world.

I hereby shamelessly, subjectively, and in full knowledge that many would disagree with me, give City of Diamond four stars overall and five within the space opera genre. And I would cheerfully commit human sacrifice in order to get my hands on the sequel, which is both unwritten and, according to Doris Egan's website, unlikely ever to be written.

* Yes, those exist, and yes, this blog will still be here when you get back from the store.

** Full disclosure: I loved the Anne books when I was a kid, and reread them as recently as my early twenties. But I challenge anyone to read the passages about the souls of flowers and kindred spirits and suchlike without throwing up just a little in their mouths. If you can do that, then City of Diamond is not for you. As a side-note, I've often wondered if P.G. Wodehouse based his character Madeline Bassett on Anne.

*** Alert readers may recall I slammed George R.R. Martin for his use of multiple viewpoint characters. Since Doris Egan is ten times the writer that Martin could ever be, she gets a pass; it's allowable when it's clear that the writer used that technique out of choice, not because it's the last refuge of a mediocre author who's bitten off more plot than he could otherwise vomit onto the page.

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