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City of Pearl

by Karen Traviss

(HarperCollins Eos, $6.99, 400 pages, paperback, March 2004, ISBN: 0060541695.)

Review by Chris Butler

Shan Frankland boards a Mars Orbital space station to carry out an inspection audit for biological and environmental hazards. She works for Environmental Hazard cover scanEnforcement, EnHaz for short. She's an ex-police officer, a somewhat sour, weary character, five days away from retirement. But she doesn't get to retire. Instead she receives an unexpected visit from Foreign Minister Eugenie Perault and is persuaded to take charge of a new mission. A mission that requires a 75 year space flight, meaning that everyone she knows on Earth, including Perault, will probably be dead by the time she gets there.

So begins City of Pearl, a debut novel published in the US, by British author Karen Traviss. It's a classy piece of SF writing, with humans inadvertently finding themselves in the middle of a territorial conflict between three other alien races. On the one side are the wess-har and the aquatic bezeri. On the other side are the isenj. The nature of the conflict is interesting and morally complex. And the relationships between the main protagonists are intriguing and mysterious, the motivation for their actions unfolding gradually over the course of the book.

The initial mystery here is why Shan chooses to accept the mission at all. Although she is fully briefed in order to make her decision, that briefing is then suppressed in her mind, only to be unlocked at a later time. The reader knows only that Shan was convinced, that there is some vital importance to the mission. And this is as much as Shan herself knows, for the moment.

What we do know is that Frankland is to make contact with a lost colony of humans who settled on the world Cavanagh's Star. Her team consists of a small squad of marines, a group of scientists representing various corporations back on Earth, and a reporter.

The situation Frankland discovers on arrival at Cavanagh's Star is unlike anything she could have expected. The human race has had no previous contact with alien sentient races, but now finds itself faced with three, each with its own agenda. The wess-har appear to be militarily far superior to everyone else, have previously wiped the isenj off the face of the planet, and are only prepared to tolerate the humans provided they behave themselves.

Are a team of human scientists ever likely to behave themselves? Er, no.

The book does take a while to get going, but it certainly gets better and better as it goes on. I applaud its interest in concerns such as corporate ownership of DNA. And where the book really comes good is in the relationship between Shan and the enigmatic Aras, a wess-har liaison of sorts (though in fact his role is more complex than this) to the human colony.

Cultural differences and misunderstandings are deftly explored. And Aras has a secret of his own, which may have (and indeed may have had) extreme consequences, not just for individuals, but for entire races.

This is part one of a trilogy and much of what happens is clearly setting the stage for the later books. An all-out war seems to be brewing, and the human race looks to be blundering in and (possibly) choosing the wrong side.

But City of Pearl does have a satisfying conclusion of its own. Which is good, because if it didn't have one I'm the kind of reader who would fling the book across the room in disgust. There was no flinging, and I'm very much looking forward to the next book. It's a fine piece of work by Traviss. I'd call it an old-school slab of SF, but it's very much informed by current scientific and sociological concerns. Buy with confidence.

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