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Manta's Gift

by Timothy Zahn

(Tor Books, August 2003, US$6.99 / Canada$9.99, 408 pages, paperback, ISBN: 081258032X. Hardback also available, 2002, $24.95.) .)

Four stars.

This novel sprawls across a variety of storylines. The prologue is, in essence, a cover scanshort story unto itself. It introduces one of the main characters, and gets the human and Qanska races into contact with each other. The main body of the book then follows threads of Mathew Raimey's increasingly odd personal life, human politics at large, and the Qanska who face challenges of their own. Keeping up with all this can be difficult -- this is a real roller-coaster of a story and it makes some hairpin turns -- but it's well worth the effort.

Human-Qanska relations are at a standstill because the Qanska live in the many-layered atmosphere of Jupiter where humans can descend only shallowly and at great risk. So the Qanska propose an outrageous plan: to turn a human into a Qanska. Recently paralyzed in a skiing accident, Raimey accepts the offer. But it turns out that both sides have ulterior motives, and neither particularly cares that Raimey gets trapped in the middle.

Although he starts out pretty self-centered and unlikable, he matures a lot over the course of the story; watching Raimey grow is one of this book's highlights. The author also does a splendid job of demonstrating how Raimey's experience as a businessman transmutes to problem-solving in quite alien contexts. The plot is intricate to the point of being baroque; large parts of the story read like court intrigue disguised as science fiction. Even the Qanska have their share of factions and deceptions.

The book has its ups and downs. For the most part, I've known humans much more incomprehensible than the Qanska. But there are places where the Qanska do come across as delightfully and plausibly alien. The plot skips annoyed me; Zahn often violates the rule about always showing important developments "onstage", and the timespan means that a lot of fascinating material is summarized rather than experienced. Another point that looked like plain authorial manipulation comes toward the end, with a probe requiring guidance ... going down, into a gravity well, where things naturally would go without help. The worldbuilding, however, more than makes up for most of the rough spots. Jupiter comes alive with plants and animals both bizarre and believable. The careful research and extrapolation shows here.

Manta's Gift is a terrific piece of science fiction, with wide appeal. I actually paid for this one, and these days, most of my reading comes from free review copies. I got my money's worth; so will you. Highly recommended.

Review by Elizabeth Barrette.

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