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A Matter of Profit by Hilari Bell
(HarperCollins Children's Books, $15.95 [projected], 281 pages, hardback; August 21 2001.)

Usually, by the end of reading a book, cover scanone has a fairly clear idea -- possibly a misguided one, but still an idea -- of whether the book is good, bad or somewhere in between, but in the instance of Hilari Bell's young-adult sf novel A Matter of Profit this particular reader has found it infernally, and bizarrely, hard to decide.

The protagonist is a young man, Ahvren, of the human species known as the Vivitare. Generations ago, the Vivitare were conquered on their home world by militaristic alien invaders, the Karg. They fought a protracted rebellion, eventually driving out and exterminating the invaders. Now they in turn, using Karg technology, conquer other worlds. Latest on the list is the 40-world, 40-species alliance known as the T'Chin. But the diverse T'Chin species (many of which have names tiresomely full of apostrophes and treble esses) have confused the Vivitare Empire by offering up no resistance to the invasion: they have let the Vivitare simply walk in and take over, a reaction interpreted by the Vivitare as being just a matter of cowardice.

The Vivitare have a pretty savage code. In place of a religion they have what can most swiftly be described as a faith in the survival of the fittest. At the top of their social order, therefore, are the most skilled fighters -- the soldiers, who are exclusively male. Other men are eliminated from contributing to the gene pool through sterilization. Women, who are generally regarded as incompetent at just about everything, do not suffer such a triage: it is assumed the most survival-equipped men will wish to mate with only the most beautiful and survival-equipped women.

Young Ahvren, although a fully qualified member of the soldier caste, has been sickened by the ruthless Vivitare suppression of a recent rebellion on the planet Mirmanidan. He wants to get out of the war game, something very difficult for a member of his caste. When he expresses this to his father, who is a high member of the aristocracy, his father makes a wager with him: he can quit soldiery if he can use his wits to run to earth the widely rumoured plot to assassinate the Emperor.

So Ahvren goes out and about among the diverse species of the planet T'Chin, main centre of the T'Chin alliance and the original home of the T'chin species. Note that lower-case "c"; it's not a typo. Although there is no hierarchy among the 40 species of the T'Chin alliance, the species that started it all was the insectile T'chin, the differentiation being marked by the upper-case/lower-case "c".

And it is with this sort of thing that Bell starts getting into all sorts of difficulties, because an alien language wouldn't have a letter "c" in it in the first place -- and doubly so since the T'chin communicate via smells (pheromonal exudations) rather than sounds. Indeed, Bell has gone to great and highly creditable effort to create a whole gamut of alien species that are not just different from us but different from each other, yet at the same time she seems to keep forgetting the very aspects of their alienness that she has been at such pains to establish. As example, we often discover members of physiologically quite distinct, non-humanoid species grinning at each other. Item A: What does an alien grin look like? Item B: Would a truly alien species experience the emotion that would produce a grin?

It may seem unkind to keep harping on this point but, precisely because Bell has done such a good job otherwise of creating the aliens, it keeps slapping at one. We are completely convinced by Wurrul, a member of a somewhat catlike species, and then we're hit by "the astonishment on his face rapidly giving way to careful control. Only the flicking tip of his tail revealed tension." (This book was read as an uncorrected proof, so the particular passage may, like others below, have been amended.) How could Ahvren read those emotions on Wurrul's face? And, although Wurrul looks a bit like a giant cat, why should he reveal tension by tail-twitching in the manner of a terrestrial moggie?

At the same time, there is so much to praise about this book as a work of the imagination. The multicultural mix of alien species is ambitious, and Bell has really done well here. The Vivitare culture is well painted. Ahvren and some of the other characters, notably his foster-sister Sabri, leap off the page as real people. It is also highly praiseworthy that some pretty tough issues are tackled head-on in a way not normally associated with novels for this age-group. The main plot is less invigorating, for the most part, and involves frequent interjections -- from a T'chin -- that even George Lucas might have thought twice about putting into the mouth of Yoda: "A turtle encountering a rock thinks it a very slow creature." (And again, how would an alien know about turtles?) Yet often there are glowingly vivid pieces of prose: "She must have been pretty once, and she was hanging on to the voluptuous remains of her charms."

This is certainly not an inconsiderable novel: it is of serious intent, and it decidedly merits reading. But it's also a bit of a curate's egg. Good, bad or indifferent? Bad it isn't -- it has too many virtues for that -- but, as noted at the start, this reader at least can't make up his mind about the other two.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 4 August 2001