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West of January

by Dave Duncan

(Red Deer Press, Can$24.95, 318 pages, paperback; first published 1990, this edition published 17 June 2003.)

With a period of rotation only one day cover scanshorter than its period of revolution, the planet Vernier offers human society constant daylight and decades-long baking summers that sear great deserts across the equator. Knobil is born into a family of herders plying the grasslands just ahead of High Summer, but when a rival herdmaster takes possession of his family he flees, hoping to return in adulthood for vengeance. What follows is a voyage of discovery that will last him the rest of his life -- in Vernier time, about four months.

What I don't understand is why Dave Duncan isn't better known in this country. Apparently he's big news in Canada, where he's been living for fifty years and writing for twenty -- in which time he's racked up an impressive back catalogue of more than thirty novels -- but as far as I can tell no publisher in the UK has picked up his work yet. They might do worse than start with West of January, which won Canada's Aurora Award for Outstanding Science Fiction in 1990, and clearly deserved it. This is an astonishing exercise in world-building, rich and bold in design, and a complex and emotional biography of its protagonist, who travels among the social groups of Vernier, becoming herdman, seaman, slave, trader and angel before finally finding a category all of his own. Duncan seems to enjoy toying with his readers, frequently signposting the next development and then coming at it from an unexpected direction; Knobil's character and reactions, meanwhile, are often offbeat but always believable.

I have only one complaint with West of January, and that is that the foreword and afterword really should have been swapped around. John Rose's brief summary of the book would have made a far more fitting introduction to the story than Candas Jane Dorsey's gushing panegyric -- Dorsey herself urges the reader to skip on and read the book first, lest she spoil the plot for them. I'm reluctant to do so myself, so suffice to say that the publishers have a anyone who loves large-scale, intelligent, literary SF is urged to make use of it.

Review by John Toon.

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