Trapped - James Alan Gardner

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive ).

James Alan Gardner
EOS Publishers
ISBN: 0380813300 (Amazon link)

Trapped is the sixth novel by this under-rated author. (Well, I think he's underrated, he may be well known outside the UK).

All his novels share a common universe, but only a few are sequels proper (ie, sharing characters). This is a standalone story, which is made richer by being familiar with his previous novels.

The universe is quite an interesting one - basically it's far future space opera territory. The main feature is The League of Peoples. The League is not often on-stage, but has a severe effect on this universe by the simple fact that they only allow sentient organisms off-planet. Any organism who is not a murderer is sentient. There's less play on that in this novel than there has been in previous books.

Earth is somewhat isolated from the League, with the people of Earth lorded over by a scary elite - The Spark Lords. This is first book to discuss them in detail, and we quickly have some of the rug pulled out from under out feet when we realise that this is a SF novel were much of the nano- enabled tech looks, and is treated as, magic. And vice-versa.

The story revolves around an adventuring party of mis-contented teachers - the Steel Caryatid (a sorceress), Myoko (a psionic), Sir Pelinor (a knight errant), Sister Impervia (a warrior nun), Annah (a music teacher), and our hero, Philemon (nothing special). One night, in a tavern of course, the Caryatid reveals that a dog's tongue told her they were all going on a Quest. Later, Phil encounters a ghost in the music room, they figure out who it is, er, was, and sure enough one of their pupils, the daughter of a mighty crime boss, is lying dead in her room. Oh, and her boyfriend, a mighty psychic (oh, secret), has eloped. With her? And what they heck is the cream-cheese stuff filling her airways? Disease? Bio-weapon? Curse? Alien life?

All the above happens in the first few pages - the Gardner trade marks are a cracking pace, lively action, crisp and witty dialogue, and a sense 3/4 of the way through the book that what you're reading is (a) more complex (b) more meaningful and (c) even more fun than you thought. This novel has great fun playing with the fantasy tropes of Earth's setting, but I think a snippet would say more than I can manage:

"I was cleaning up after Freshman 4A" [...] "[and] what
I found in the crucible," continued the Caryatid, "was
what I call Goat Stew. Someone always convinces the Class
Goat that you can make an infallible love potion from eye
of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog...
the whole Scottish formula. Let me tell you, that does not
make a love potion."
"What does it make?" asked Pelinor.
"Blind newts, lame frogs, cold bats, and a cocker spaniel who
makes god-awful sucking sounds when he's trying to drink from
his dish. So I'm staring at this mess when suddenly the newt's
eye turns my way. Then the dog's tongue says, *You're going
on a quest.*"
"Do dogs have deep voices?" Pelinor asked. "I've always wondered.
It stands to reason a Chunuahua would have a higher voice
than a bloodhound, but if you got, say, a male Doberman and
a female, would the male be a bass and the female an alto?
Or would they both be baritones?"
"This particular dog was a tenor," said the Caryatid. "I don't
know what breed or gender. So it told me-"
"Did it have an accent?" Pelinor asked.
"No," the Caryatid snapped. "And it had flawless diction,
even though it didn't have lips or a larynx, all right? It
told me, You're going on a quest I said, What kind of quest?
and it answered, A dangerous one. I asked, *Why on Earth would
I go on a dangerous quest?* It said, Hey, lady, I may be
a talking dog tongue, but I'm no mindreader"
"Don't you just hate it," Myoko murmered, when animal parts
get uppity?"

Fun isn't it? It's like Brust in parody mode, or Barne's One for the Morning Glory but spiced with whopping great chunks of SF action adventure. The plot has us playing with the idle rich, pirates, scary hive mind aliens, scary super-tech laden Spark Lords, and electrical generators at Niagara falls.

Huge fun, striking images, crisp plotting, memorable characters all written with a deft, humorous touch. What's not to like? Gardner has been on my Buy-On-Sight list for a couple of years now, and I'd strongly suggest that anyone who hasn't read something by him remedy that situation - start with Expendable , the first in this loose series, and not badly written for an early novel.

Recommended SF action-adventure.

Posted: Sat - March 15, 2003 at 03:20 PM