Wednesday, June 08, 2005

City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

My older sister is adamant about reading books in order, something I've never paid much attention to, but suddenly, I'm faced with exactly why she feels this way and it is very frustrating. I have just finished City of Pearl by Karen Traviss, a debut novel of exceptional quality that has the complexity of characters and themes that first drew me to sociological science fiction and keeps pulling me back. Now I swear only coincidence led the first two books I mention to include ecological themes, but while Gods Old and Dark touched on the theme, City of Pearl is steeped in it.

The story starts out with an EnHaz (Environmental Hazard Enforcement) officer ready to retire who is given an offer that she can't refuse--or remember thanks to a technology called Suppressed Briefing which is a chemical "need to know" memory suppressant. She agrees to travel 75 years in cold storage with a team of marines and scientists to find out what happened to a religious group that attempted to colonize a distant planet, taking with them a genetic storage of all the unique plants and animals on Earth with the intention of recolonizing Earth after Armageddon.

You learn most if not all of that in the first few chapters, a set up rife with enough conflict to keep anyone happy. Does Karen Traviss leave it there? Of course not. Not only are there multiple types of aliens on the planet each with very specific agendas and unique philosophies, but the humans are living happily in the equivalent of a zoo. And that's not telling it all, but I'm stopping here with the plot and story hints because I think I've said enough to pique your interest.

What I will say is that the characters are real, their backgrounds affect who they are and why they behave the way they do, and they're not always right. They have both fallibilities and a strength of purpose that drew me in. The planet is complex, the people are more so and the conflicts are all plausible. The enemy isn't always obvious either because of conflicts between perspectives and moments of weakness that have consequences I could both see and hope would not come about. In case my description didn't make it clear, this is not a pure entertainment, adrenalin-rush, 2-hour read. Her language is approachable and comprehension was never an issue, but I read this book slower even than my normal crawl because there was so much to absorb and I didn't want to miss a bit. This is my method of reading, but another equivalent would be to say this is the type of book that has enough depth to be read again and again. Each time you would find another telling phrase or something that you missed the first time through.

Oh, and in case you're curious, I read the second book first, Crossing the Line, because I was selected as an advanced reader. I've been signing up for the book lottery every month at several publishers. It's a good way to be exposed to new authors or genres you wouldn't normally read and though I haven't been chosen in a while, the effort led to Karen Traviss, making it definitely worth while. I read the second book, recognized the skill and how I enjoyed the way she writes. Took me a while, but then I picked up City of Pearl and, though her first novel-length published work, it has not disappointed me at all. The only disappointment I felt was that in coming to the end, I'd already read the next one. However, I just went to her website, , and discovered she has a third coming soon :).

For those who are curious, here's my reader review:

Crossing the Line is an intensely complex novel told in a direct, approachable manner that drew me right in. It twines the lives of five different species, each with both unique and familiar traits, showing where common interests and desires can lead to conflict and disaster both within and between species. I've never read Karen Traviss before but I plan to find her first novel, City of Pearl, just to experience the history of these characters in her own words. That said, this novel stands alone, not requiring anything more than you'll find between the covers. It sparks a desire to know the past and future of those characters introduced in this book merely because they become real, each with their own desires, failings and needs. I will certainly put her on my list of authors I seek out and keep track of. It's a pleasure to find another author along the lines of C.J. Cherryh, who explores aliens neither as carbon copies of humans nor cardboard cutouts and who takes the time to generate a full philosophy and approach to life that is coherent, cohesive, and distinctive.


Deb (astlin) said...

I read Karen's novels when they first came out and can whole heartedly agree with everything you've written. She wowed me and left me hungering for the upcoming third novel. Another note, she has recently announced that her publisher has picked up another three books set in the series. Cheers of earth-shaking proportions here :)

Don't be afraid of her Star Wars media tie either. I just finished it not too long ago and it's as amazing in it's depth and passions for the themes and characters. I fell in love with Omega Squad, that it was placed in the Star Wars universe became secondary to me to the squad members themselves and her portrayal of clones and the questions regarding their creation and use. She just announced a second novel coming out next year today. More cheers :)

Margaret said...

I'm planning to check the Star Wars ones out. I'm not into the Star Wars universe, but a darn good book is a darn good book and I'm not going to ignore it because someone made movies in the same universe :).

Yes, I saw that the three books had been sold. /me rubs hands in glee.

I'm a pretty ecclectic reader, but I find it harder to get my sociological science fiction fix. Nancy Kress is another author who writes books that I put in this category.

Deb said...

Glad to hear that :) Hard Contact was my first foray into the SW tie-ins too, and I'll definitely be back for more of her boys.

Yeah, I can be fairly eccletic as well. I put Karen's novels on my mental 'they make ya think' shelf :) I haven't read Kress yet, though I have been curious about her books for some time. I'll check them out.