Thursday, February 17, 2011

Guardians of the Phoenix by Eric Brown

Eric Brown has been writing for a while, but as far as I'm concerned he really became interesting when he published Helix about three years ago. Since then he's been turning out a surprising number of books--like six or seven so far with another due to release next month.

Helix was a strong offering: not stunning, but a good adventure story on an outlandish world--a little like Ringworld, perhaps, but without Ringworld's sense of epicness.

Necropath was very different in tone but an even better book: a solid science fiction tale blending in a murder mystery and psionic abilities. He continued the saga with Xenopath and Cosmopath and never really lost the pace, though by the end of the last I was starting to see some of Helix shining through.

I missed a few other of his releases, then picked up this one: Guardians of the Phoenix. Here Brown is definitely returning to his Helix roots: it's an adventure tale concentrating on a small group of desperate people struggling to travel to a half-mythical goal across a horrible landscape. This time, instead of placing our adventurers on a novel planet, Brown has decided to tear up the Earth: in this post-apocalyptic tale the oceans have dried up and the planet has been covered with sand dunes, with the last remnants of humanity numbering perhaps in the thousands worldwide.

Brown pulls several things off well in this story. The environment is well crafted: not as stifling and fraternal as Glen Cook's Passage At Arms perhaps, but still enough to make you feel adrift on that barren wasteland. The reveals are thin but well timed--sometimes you can feel he's dragging them out on purpose, but he never seems to be stuffing pointless material in there for pacing. And while the characters have annoying traits, you can at least identify with them.

And naturally there are things I'd like to see improved. There are too many scene shifts early in the book: with only 450 pages this doesn't qualify as even Medium on my tome-o-meter, so I don't want to see six or seven different viewpoints in the first six or seven chapters. It's a relatively small group of people, so let me get to know them a little, eh? One of those viewpoints is awkward as well--it's backstory for a character who doesn't appear in the flesh until the last chapter, and each bit of backstory is only a page or two. I understand why Brown needed to add this stuff, but it could've been managed better.

I don't think we'll be seeing a sequel to this one; it wouldn't fit well on the ending, as any follow-up would have too many new characters and a new location. But it was a worthwhile read anyway.

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