Crossing the Line
By Karen Traviss
The Shades of Time and Memory
By Storm Constantine
The Hidden Family
By Charles Stross
What is the job of the second book in a series? What's the difference between an average series second and an outstanding one?
First, and probably most obviously, a series second's job is to advance the story from the first novel in a manner that engages the reader. Second, it should prompt the search for either the first novel in the series (if they haven't already read it—yes, some people do read the series second first, especially if the series first isn't readily available) or the following novel.
The difference between average and outstanding series seconds is that the latter will make a reader seek out other books in the series as soon as possible. A reader may not even finish an average series second; books that fall into this box are most likely fun reads, less brain-engaging than something truly outstanding.
Since a trio of such novels wafted into my mailbox over the last several months, it seems worthwhile to look at each of them as a distinct novel and as parts of their respective series, with a view to also answering the questions previously posed herein. None of the books discussed here are bad or mediocre, but they don't all measure up to the higher end of the standard set in this review.
Crossing the Line by Karen Traviss
Eos published the first wess'har novel by Karen Traviss with City of Pearl (six books are projected); Crossing the Line is followed by The World Before. Traviss primarily uses four characters' perspectives to tell the story in Crossing the Line to very good effect, as each of them represents the outlook of a particular group.
In City of Pearl, Traviss posits a future where, near the end of the 24th century, the U.S. is no longer a global giant, having been eclipsed by a federation of European states, and most countries are controlled more by mega-corporations than governments. Shan Frankland is a former Federal European Union police officer who was reassigned to FEU Environmental Hazard Enforcement, as a sort of lateral demotion for siding with eco-terrorists when she was assigned to Special Branch as an antiterrorist officer. She is sent to investigate a human colony on the planet Bezer'ej, the second planet of what humans call Cavanagh's Star, because the colony holds the last remnants of several extinct plant species in a gene bank, and the FEU wants them returned intact and out of mega-corporation hands.
After arriving, Shan gets embroiled in a conflict over control of the planet's potential key to immortality. The isenj want their colony back; the aquatic bezeri want to be left alone on Bezer'ej; the wess'har will die to protect Bezer'ej because the bezeri asked for their help against the isenj when they invaded. Shan becomes close to one of the wess'har, Aras, the bezeri's protector. Although horrified at what her fellow humans do to the unarmed bezeri, she finds herself unable to entirely abandon the human colony on Bezer'ej.
Shan Frankland is a no-nonsense, sanguine warrior who has a soft spot for the underdog, which was what got her into trouble with Special Branch. She doesn't see just black and white, but also the shades of gray that color human interactions, and most of what she's seen hasn't been pleasant. She thinks of herself as a "good copper," and is seldom modest about her job skills; she doesn't see herself as arrogant, though, but as well-trained and experienced at what she does best. She takes no crap from anyone, and those who betray her are in her sights until they're no longer a threat. When Crossing the Line opens, Shan is adapting to the alien lifeform with which Aras deliberately infected her—called c'naatat by the wess'har—in order to save her life, while the c'naatat adapts to her: no other human has ever been exposed to this symbiont.
Aras is the last of a group of wess'har who volunteered to allow c'naatat to alter them, giving them vastly extended lifespans, nearly indestructible bodies and greater speed. He saved Shan's life when he let some of his blood into her wounds when she was shot, and feels some guilt—a decidedly non-wess'har emotion—about having done this. Certain biological impulses have to be dealt with, and Shan and Aras decide to make the best of a situation that is mostly out of their control; individual influence over what c'naatat does to them is very minimal. With the exchange of blood comes the exchange of memory, emotion, instinct and motivation, as well as the chemical composition of their bodies.
Lindsay Neville, a Royal Marines officer from the detachment that accompanied Shan on her trip to Bezer'ej in the first novel, desperately wanted to use c'naatat to save her terminally ill son, and was denied the chance to find out if it would work. Neville's only desire is to return to Bezer'ej as part of a mission to detain and return Shan to FEU hands, in order to avenge herself on Shan for her son's death.
BBChan journalist Eddie Michallat finds himself in an increasingly untenable position as a reporter; his supposed objectivity is under constant assault by what the greed of his own species is causing. As the FEU team with Neville prepares to return to Bezer'ej, Eddie sends reports back to Earth which feature the isenj, who overpopulated their own world and nearly killed off the bezeri when they attempted to colonize Bezer'ej; the bezeri's call for help brought the wess'har, and Aras has been guarding Bezer'ej for half a millennium.
As Shan adjusts to "waking up to a new body every day," she learns that the wess'har have more than Aras to protect them, and the bezeri, from further incursions. Knowing she can never return to Earth now that she carries c'naatat, Shan concentrates on doing what she can to help the wess'har guard the bezeri and move the human colony from the island of Constantine. But the appearance of another human starship in the Cavanagh system causes events to accelerate at a pace even Shan finds hard to maintain. She and Aras become involved in wess'har defense planning, when Neville's team is detected on Bezer'ej. Shan knows that Neville is back for one reason alone, and goes to meet her adversary, with explosively predictable results that take nothing away from the story's dramatic tension.
Traviss deals with several prominent science-fictional themes. Among them are human-alien interaction on a biological level, environmental balance, immortality or life-extension, genetic enhancement for military purposes, and political skullduggery both human and alien. The complexity of her characters' relationships never overwhelms the action necessary to move the story forward, and the action has enough depth to develop the characters as people and not just stand-around cardboard figures. It would provide a sense of completion to read City of Pearl, but it doesn't seem necessary to understand most of what's happening in Crossing the Line. Traviss also succeeds admirably in disguising infodumps (deposits of large chunks of description or dialogue which provide backstory), or at least making them so smooth that one doesn't notice them right away. But it's the characters that make this book. Shan Frankland isn't perfect, but that's what makes her human despite the changes she's experienced.
Because Traviss tells the story through the characters so well, without forsaking the story's forward movement, Crossing the Line deserves an "outstanding" as a series second.
The Shades of Time and Memory by Storm Constantine
Storm Constantine's published Wraeththu novels have a rather convoluted chronological structure. The first one, The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit was published in 1987 and became the first of what is now known as the Wraeththu Chronicles trilogy (followed by The Bewitchments of Love and Hate and The Fulfillments of Fate and Desire). The Shades of Time and Memory is the second in the Wraeththu Histories, which began with The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure and is followed by The Ghosts of Blood and Innocence, but this second trilogy fits chronologically between the first and second novels of the first trilogy. Convoluted, right?
Constantine has set these novels on a post-apocalyptic Earth where humans lost their prime status to the Wraeththu—human hermaphrodites with a severely androgynous appearance and paranormal powers, who use sexual magic via aruna (the Wraeththu name for a certain form of sexual relations, which for them is a necessity for physical health and spiritual balance) to affect events and beings. The first Wraeththu emerged as disaffected youth who formed gangs, wore uniforms to distinguish themselves from other Wraeththu groups, then rebelled against and overpowered human governments and society.
Some human males can become Wraeththu through a blood transfer called "inception"; most others die, and no human females survive contact with a male Wraeththu. They believe in reincarnation, so most of them don't use their abilities or their magic to do harm. Their bodies are self-regulating so they're never fat, and they can reproduce with any pairing since the Wraeththu are hermaphrodites; the fetus is called a pearl because of the hard, leathery casing in which the harling is confined until its hostling delivers it. All Wraeththu are called "he" when a pronoun is required. Interestingly, Constantine introduced a related race, the Kamagrian, in The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure. The Kamagrian are the "female version," if you will, of the Wraeththu, and can incept human females. There aren't many of them, and nearly all of them choose to live in isolation and devote themselves to spiritual enhancement.
In The Shades of Time and Memory, Pellaz har Aralis, Tigron (leader) of Immanion (capital city of Almagabra), who "died and was reborn into new flesh" is trying to come to terms with his resurrection and a new relationship. The return of his chesnari (lover), Calanthe, has created a triad between Pellaz, Calanthe, and Caeru har Aralis, Tigrina of Immanion and Pellaz's consort. Calanthe has become co-Tigron of Immanion, even though he caused the discorporation (not murder; yes, it's complicated and too long to explain here) of Thiede, the first Wraeththu.
Pellaz wants to amend his behavior toward his consort, and coaxes Caeru and Calanthe into creating a pearl containing the essences of all three of them, and they succeed. In doing so, they alert a darker side of Wraeththu, in the person of Ponclast, exiled and magically imprisoned long ago. But with Thiede's passing from the living world, the power that holds Ponclast weakens just enough to allow him to send his son Diablo to Immanion to commit a vicious crime. Pellaz, who had been waffling after his conception experiment with Caeru and Calanthe, is galvanized into action when he feels Caeru cry out in agony, far across the city, as the pearl is ripped from Caeru's body. The abduction of the pearl, and the discovery that Ponclast has powerful allies, drives the main action of this novel.
Interpersonal relationships change and re-form throughout the story, and new information is provided to Pellaz and Calanthe from the otherlanes, the between-worlds pathways the Wraeththu use (with the help of beings called sedim, which appear to them as horses) to travel long distances as well as to work certain kinds of magic. In fact, the quality that best describes this novel is fluidity. Constantine doesn't wallop the reader with info-dumps (though they ought to be recognizable to the experienced reader), and the changes in motivation and personality for characters that experience these things are believable and smooth.
But there's something lacking in the characterizations of Pellaz, Calanthe and Caeru, and I think it's the lack of reading the first three books, and then the first book of this trilogy. There's a large amount of back story that one needs in order to grasp the world of the Wraeththu effectively enough for the characters and their stories to make sense. Pellaz died and was reborn; what was that like? What was Thiede like before Calanthe discorporated him? There are many other questions that could have best been answered by reading the previous books.
While the story in The Shades of Time and Memory is engaging and well written, the characterization suffers for readers who haven't read earlier books in the series. Starting with this book is not a good idea; while it isn't missing the necessary elements of a complete novel, it might make a reader feel there's too much catching up to do (four other, previous books ought to be read to get the entire experience, so to speak). Unless a reader is completely enthralled by the world of the Wraeththu, the choice of passing on the previous books for something more immediately engaging would undoubtedly be strong.
The Shades of Time and Memory certainly stands on its own, but readers would probably enjoy its story more if they'd read at least the first book in the series before moving on to later books. Let's call it an almost-but-not-quite-success as a second.
The Hidden Family by Charles Stross
The Family Trade begins the Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross, followed by The Hidden Family and then The Clan Corporate. Technology journalist and Bostonian Miriam Beckstein finds herself immersed in a struggle for economic hegemony between rival clans when she discovers she has another family in an alternate world (The Family Trade). As the prodigal daughter of nobility, she must not only survive her return to her estranged family but build her own power base in the alternate world of her newly-found relatives, and do it according to their rules and social customs.
At the same time, she has to resolve certain issues with her lover, decide how she feels about her mother keeping a huge secret for so many years, and figure out how to break the news to her newfound relatives that there is a hidden family at work which actively seeks their downfall. The ability to travel between alternate worlds comes from pendants or other representations of specific patterns, each symbols of their respective world. However, not all those living in these worlds can travel in this manner.
There's plenty of action in this novel: traveling from one world to another, assassination attempts, businesses getting started, noble assemblies congregating and arguing. At times it seems too fast-paced, especially with the traveling between worlds. Miriam is the viewpoint character for most of the novel, and while one wants to believe in The Competent Woman, in this second novel, there's no provision for showing how she got all the skills she uses here. Reading the first novel in this series might alleviate that problem.
Something else that nags at the mind while reading this is that, for societies which don't seem to consider women as equals to men (at least in public), Miriam is able to set up shop and throw a lot of money around without causing very much interest. The local constabulary comes by to visit her new business, but that's the extent of the local snooping by government officials. One can argue that having a mother who was a 1960s radical and part of the Weather Underground would give one certain skills in, say, disguise and being able to disappear effectively (from sight, government records, etc.). Miriam's biggest worry is ducking the assassination attempts, and she manages to do this almost too well. Perhaps reading the first book in this series would resolve most or all of these questions, but given that the questions exist, The Hidden Family meets the standards delineated here, but not in the way that would make it an outstanding series second.