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Maximum Ice

by Kay Kenyon

(Bantam Spectra, $5.99, 432 pages, mass market paperback, February 2002.)

Review by Stuart Jaffe

cover scanIt's not hard for a book to slip through the cracks. In fact, it happens all the time. I'm not just referring to a small press book that the major publishers failed to recognize, which then, due to limited distribution and no publicity, never found an audience. I am talking about an established mid-list author being published by a major label. I'm talking about Maximum Ice.

This is Kay Kenyon's fifth novel (her sixth, The Braided World, is in stores now), and it was nominated for the Philip K. Dick award. Many of you might know her work, but everyone I asked had never heard of her. For myself, I knew of Kenyon's writing only through a short story she wrote with Mike Resnick. Now that I've experienced a full novel by her, I'm anxious to check out her other work.

After a relative 250-year journey, the space vessel Star Road returns to Earth. Ten thousand years have transpired for Earth, and it does not resemble what they had left behind. Zoya Kundara is the Ship Mother -- a woman who lives in stasis, only to be revived when needed for wisdom and to counsel the new generations of Star Road's crew. She is sorely needed now, as the Earth they have discovered nears extinction due to a crystalline substance known as Ice that is covering the entire planet. Zoya will encounter humans living in underground preserves, a non-religious, amoral order of nuns, a bounty hunter, massive herds of rats, and the snow witches. She will uncover the secrets of Ice and have a slim chance to save the world from destruction, or she will die trying.

First off, the story is fast. The writing is solid, dependable storytelling that grabs the reader's interest right away. The action scenes are intense, and the character conflicts keep the plot going strong. Political intrigues, ambitious gambits, and vicious enemies abound. And I ate it all up, racing to the climactic conclusion.

Now, Kenyon's work has received excellent reviews, so the question that comes to me is: Why hasn't she reached a higher status in the sf community? A few aspects of Maximum Ice may hold the answer. As much as I enjoyed this book, there were some problems in it.

The first came early -- infodumping. I realize that in just about any sf story there is going to be a necessary amount of explanation. How that explanation is handled, however, is a different matter. Infodump, slamming all the required exposition into a few large paragraphs, is usually one of the worst choices an author can make. It is essential to find some way of incorporating the exposition into the scenes of the book, whether through description, character thought, conversation, or action (or anything else the author can come up with). With infodumping we are taken out of the story and provided with a mini-lecture.

A second problem is common to many novels. Maximum Ice is told via multiple storylines. This is wonderful method of storytelling, but it does present a great difficulty. Each storyline has to be equally engaging. How often have we, as readers, come across a multiple-storyline novel and found that one or two of the storylines stand out? They can stand out to the point that you can't wait to get through Chapter 7 about the boring characters just so you can get back to the other storylines. Obviously, handling this situation involves a fantastic balancing act, and there are many great novels that don't quite pull it off. Kenyon comes close; however, I would have vastly preferred this story told from only three viewpoints, instead of five or so.

Flaws aside, though, I believe Kay Kenyon is a writer with enough talent to become a household name in the sf community. That may seem like too high a praise coming from a reviewer who spent much of this review pointing out the problems, but it's not. This is a wonderful book that thrilled me as I read it. Her characters come to life with vibrancy and have a greater depth than is common in many sf novels. In fact, to harp on about it, had she stuck to just two or three storylines I wonder how incredible, how unforgettable, her characters could have become.

She also managed to pull of an exciting climax to the story and, even more important, a near-perfect ending. It's the kind of ending that puts the main character and the main theme in perspective, underscoring the novel as a whole. If for nothing else, this book is worth experiencing just to get to that ending. Thankfully, it is worth experiencing for far more. And, with any luck, we will all come to know the name Kay Kenyon very well.

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