Bewildering Stories

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John Barnes' The Sky So Big And Black

Title: "The Sky So Big And Black"
Author: John Barnes
Tor Books
384 pages
Price: $24.95-HB $6.99-PB

John Barnes is another of the "Children of Heinlein". I don't care if "the mantle of Heinlein" falls on John Barnes; I just want him to write more good fiction. When I first started reading The Sky So Big And Black I thought it was going to be a somewhat clunkily done Heinlein juvenile clone. Why clunky? Because for some reason there is this framing story told from the point of view of a police "shrink" who is reviewing the tapes made by one Terpsicore Melpomene Murray, starting from when she is 17, just before she goes in for her FA, "Full Adult" test.

As one delves into the book, what appeared on the surface as a lighthearted "coming-of-age" romp set on Mars slowly moves deeper into darkness. There is much extremely well done foreshadowing, and we get deeper into the hearts and minds of both Teri-Mel, and the Shrink.

The Sky So Big And Black is set in the same universe as Candle and Kaleidoscope Century but by no stretch of the imagination is a sequel. The book stands fully on its own. Although Teri is a teenager, this is NOT a book aimed at the 10-16 year old crowd. There is a reason why the sky is black. Earth has been co-opted by a man-created mental virus called "The One True", which is also called a "meme", and Barnes explains why it is called such. He has some well thought-out bitter words about the state of the educational system today, and discusses the "War of the Memes" with The One True, after hive-minding Earth, trying to take over the (for now anyway) free Mars.

I could go into some details regarding Teri and her dad, ecoprospecting on Mars, broken hearts and broken skies, but it would be better if you just go get the book and read it. As in all good stories, your thoughts will return to this story and an ending that could be described as "a happy ending", for the now extremely rich Teri and her Shrink go out ecospecting together, but the ending is also sad and bleak and though foreshadowed, is still a sad surprise.

Catherine Asaro's The Moon's Shadow

Title: "The Moon's Shadow"
Author: Catherine Asaro
Tor Books
480 pages
Price: $25.95-HB

I was in the middle of The Sky So Big And Black when fate and my local bookstore lady dropped The Moon's Shadow on me. I was getting a tiny bit depressed by Barnes' book (good, but sad) and since I haven't yet read a bad Asaro, just jumped right in. I started it about 2:30 pm (with a late lunch) and finished it that night about 1:30 am. The next day wasn't a whole lot of fun, but it was worth staying up to finish.

This book is Book Eight in Asaro's Skolian Empire series, but stands well on its own. It definitely IS a sequel, and it continues the story of Ruby Dynasty--the ruling telepaths of Skolia--and the Eubians, this time in the person of Jabriol Qox, the 17-year-old ruler of the Empire of Eube, also known as Traders because the central focus of their empire is the capture and trading of slaves, especially telepaths.

The Aristos of Eube, a small, genetically enhanced aristocracy, are empaths who are wired backwards. Instead of feeling what others feel, the infliction of pain causes them great pleasure, and causing a telepath pain makes the pleasure "transcendent". Truly a nasty culture. And Jabriol the Third, Emperor of Eube, had as a father an emperor who fled his throne because he found the Traders barbaric, and a mother who was a Ruby Psion, formerly Imperator of Skolia. And he is very much his mother's son. If the Aristos discover his telpathic abilities, he will be forced from the throne and turned into a pain-racked slave.

Asaro, a physicist in her own right, delivers a tight well-written story with characters you care about. Even the bad guys have occasionally endearing qualities, and all of the primary and secondary characters are well-drawn and real. There have been rants about "page production madness" with books like "The Wheel of Time" series that just go on and on, but Asaro's "Skolian Empire" books are complete, real stories that don't require the reader to have read any of the others. This particular book could even be considered to be a good place to become acquainted with Skolians, Traders, and the Earth Alliance. Of course, then you'll have to run out and buy the rest.

I previously reviewed Spherical Harmonic and Catch The Lightning, so I guess you could say that I am an Asaro fan.

Copyright © 2004 by Jerry Wright