June 15, 2010

BOOKS: The January Dancer; Up Jim River, Michael Flynn (2008;2010)

A pair of terrific space-opera McGuffins, with memorable characters and spectacularly lovely prose.

By the time of Flynn's distant future, Terra is a distant memory -- more of a legend, really. As mankind has moved out into space, the cultures of old Terra have been mixed and combined in every possible combination. You get a sense of that just from Flynn's character names: Zorba de la Susa, Johnny Barcelona, Enwelumokwu Tottenheim, Shmon van Rwengasira y Gasdro, Cheng-bob Smerdrov. For some odd reason, Irish/Celtic culture seems to have hung on particularly strongly -- the lingua franca of this universe is called Gaelactic -- so it's probably not a surprise that one of our central characters is a harper, a woman who travels the universe playing traditional music and improvising new tunes about the exploits of those she meets.

As The January Dancer opens, the harper has approached a scarred man in a bar on Jehovah, and asked him to tell her a tale; he tells the tale of the title object, a piece of stoneware whose owner can give anyone any order and not be denied. In the nature of all good McGuffins, the Dancer itself isn't particularly important, and its powers play only a relatively small role in the actual story; the drama lies not in the object but in the quest. Up Jim River reunites the harper and the scarred man, and sends them on a quest of their own; one of the central characters from The January Dancer has gone missing, and our two protagonists each have reasons for wanting to find her.

The great strength of these books is Flynn's prose, which is delightful to read. Here's how he introduces one character, early in Up Jim River:

And so the story begins, if it did not begin elsewhere and at another time. The
scarred man sits in his accustomed place in the Bar, robed in shadows in a niche cut into the wall. The other niche-seats are favored by lovers seeking shadows -- but there is no love here. Or love only of the most abrasive sort.

The early morning is a somber and introspective time, and the scarred man's visage is nothing if not somber and introspective. He owns a gaunt and hollow look, as if he has been suctioned out, and not even a soul remains. He is all skin and skull, and his mouth sags across the saddle of his hooked chin. He has been known to smile, but not very often and never is it comforting to see. He is weathered, his skin almost translucent. His hair is snow-white, but not the white of purity, for that has been a long time lost. A checkerboard of scars breaks the hair into tufts like a woodland violated by streets and winding roads. Those scars and a sad story have kept him fed and reasonably drunk for a long time. He has changed the story from time to time just to keep it fresh; but his eyes are never still and the true story may have never been told.

You probably could get away with diving straight into Up Jim River, but there are details and plot points that will make more sense and resonate more strongly if you read The January Dancer first. I think Up Jim River is the more entertaining of the two books, but both are marvelous entertainment.

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