Have you read this book?
I have a confession to make, one that will no doubt shock the hard-core speculative fiction fans that frequent this site.
I’ve never read Dune. Yep. There it is. One of the most highly praised SF works of all time, and I’ve never read it. It’s not because of a lack of effort. I tried to read it. My intentions were pure. More than once, I settled down with the book, determined to see it through. But, somehow, as I tried to wade through the first few chapters, I found my interest waning. I just couldn’t get into it. This house here, that house there, this planet here, this duke there, this guild here… twenty pages into it and I had absolutely no idea what was going on.
I had a similar, if less powerful reaction, to The Bretton Katt Alliance. There I was, a third of the way into the book and I was just then starting to be able to distinguish the characters. In a way, that’s good — Margaret Graham didn’t write some thin, by-the-numbers, plot-driven book with cookie-cutter characters. The flip side of that is there are so many characters and so many relationships and so much interweaving of personalities that it takes a dedicated reader to stick with it long enough for it all to start making sense. Honestly? If I hadn’t had to read it for SFReader, I probably would have given up. And that’s a shame, because it ends up being pretty good.
It didn’t hurt that Ms. Graham has a firm grip on how to write. I found myself reading a few passages — especially bits of conversation — more than once. Because they were clever, or insightful, or just plain well-written. Despite the large cast, each character ends up being unique, some likable and some not, and each driven by personal and understandable motivations.
I think making the speculative element more pronounced could have helped. Although the story takes place on a different planet, it’s a planet that precisely mimics Earth, and not just on the flora and fauna. The inhabitants use dollars and drink coffee and have cats for pets. They drive cars. Their idea of literature is Shakespeare and Dickens (didn’t anyone write any classics in the almost millennia that passed since those works were written and the time when this story took place?). The aliens (there are two alien races in the book) look exactly like humans. They act like humans, talk like humans and drink tea like humans. Essentially, they are Star Trek aliens, except Ms. Graham didn’t even bother adding any goofy makeup.
Ok Lynn, that’s well and good, but what’s it about?
Alas, there’s no short answer; it’s about a lot of things — betrayal and loyalty, bravery and family obligation, pursuit of knowledge and a defiance of evil, racism and discrimination, doing what’s right when it’s the last thing you want to do… and more.
The action takes place in Bretton Katt, free city and home to a massive university. Bretton Katt traffics in information, specifically access to the dbase, which contains all the accumulated knowledge to date. It’s a currency Bretton Katt uses to maintain its autonomy. Intertwined with the fate of the city are the numerous members of an extended family of mixed blood — human and Neoran (one of the two alien races) and mixed motivations. The characters of this family form the main (but not the sole) focus of the novel. When the family matriarch, Anna Helsak, forms an unlikely alliance with an old enemy, her children must choose their allegiances. Bretton Katt is joined in its struggle by the alien Rusorin, who is locked in a centuries old battle with the only other living member of her race. Both of them possess secret powers, as well as an intense hatred for each other. I found their feud and their characters to be the most interesting to me as the book progressed.
The writing here is definitely at a professional level. If Ms. Graham shopped it around to the various publishing houses before taking the POD route, the only reason I can think of that it might not have gotten picked up is because it takes so long to get going and for the reader (at least this reader) to get a grasp on the many characters. This is billed as book one, and I suppose the best praise I can give is that I would read the next volume.
It’s like the difference between baseball and football: one’s a more leisurely game, played out in subtle strategies where every player has a near equivalent level of impact, and the other a very physical contest marked by game-breaking plays and flashy players who can turn the game on a dime. Those speculative fiction readers looking for a cerebral tale of diplomatic treachery intertwined with good old fashioned good versus evil will certainly enjoy this book. Readers who like more action-oriented stories will probably be challenged to get past the first few chapters.