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Dance of Knives, Donna McMahon, Tor, 2001, 416 pp.

Dance of Knives is an assured debut novel, throwing us into an urban future of incredible detail, great violence, and involving characters. McMahon takes a sort of post-apocalyptic approach to her future society, but this is not the lazy post-apocalypse of writers who want to take shortcuts. McMahon seems to take on the cliché of a post-collapse society as an enormous challenge: what can be wrung from a potentially rich situation but one that has been through the wringer a few times already? I’m happy to report that Dance of Knives finds something new to say in its urban wasteland.

Dance of Knives begins with a brief prologue, and then we jump right into the life of a young woman named Klale Renhardt. She is new in Vancouver but this is a Vancouver of the early 22nd century; water levels have risen, nations have fallen apart, and advances in various biological sciences have allowed the unscrupulous to twist and train brain chemistry in order to create slaves known as tools or weapons. All of this is quite overwhelming for someone from a small fishing community up the coast. But she is determined to make her way in this new city and leave her old life behind. It’s an old story, and one often told for the purposes of introducing the main character and the reader simultaneously to a complex situation. Fortunately, 22nd century Vancouver is a fascinating, deadly place, so there’s always something exciting going on.

Klale is not the sole main character however. We soon get to know Toni, a bartender at the KlonDyke where Klale is lucky enough to land a job. It seems to offend Toni personally that Klale is so naive and compassionate. Early in the story:

“She fixed Klale with a cold gaze. ‘Klale, surviving Downtown means developing a necessary callousness. There’s nothing you can do for Blade. Or many others. You’ll simply have to learn to accept that.’” (103)

The more we learn about Toni, however, the more we realize that she is desperately trying to avoid her own advice. She has some dark secret in her own past; could the rumours be true that she used to be a trainer, those reviled people who create tools? If she had been a trainer in the past, she would be very valuable to the local gangs, so she has more than one reason to suppress this bit of gossip. In any case, we soon find out that she is trying to crack the conditioning that holds Blade, one of the most notorious of tools, in servitude to his master. Klale and Toni find out through various means that Blade used to be a boy named Simon. Can the two break through to Simon? Some very ruthless people are using all their technological and psychological power against the two women.

Chapter 12 is the first chapter from the point of view of Simon. What could a near-automaton be thinking? What would a sensitive boy think about the dirty work his grown up body is forced to do? McMahon makes this the heart of the book, and it is indeed heart-wrenching. We also learn a great deal about Klale and Toni by finding out what Blade/Simon thinks of them.

The blurbs for Dance of Knives inevitably mention Blade Runner, but for me, the point of reference is actually more Philip K. Dick in print than on film. Blade Runner buries many of Dick’s ideas too deeply to be crucial, especially the idea that compassion is what separates us from the replicant. McMahon’s Blade is an involuntary replicant, his humanity squelched, his feelings burned out of him. A fascinating crux for a book. As such, the book is investigating the interplay between technology and humanity. Is technology encroaching on the traits that make us human? If there were a misuse of technology that leads to the loss of human-ness in some way, how would we go about regaining what we’ve lost? I found this to be an unusually strong underpinning for a novel. This would probably have sufficed to carry the book but the book is crammed full of other great detail as well.

In the post-collapse world of Dance of Knives, regionalism has become the only important political structure. This resonates well with a favourite book of mine, the first entry in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy, The Wild Shore, in which efforts to reconnect a broken society formed a key part of the plot. Part of the gang war in Dance of Knives concerns efforts to reconnect the drowned Downtown with the rest of society and to redevelop the area. By contrast, The Wild Shore is a relatively utopian society, while Dance of Knives has a texture of violence to its world. I would venture that McMahon’s future is a little further along than Robinson’s, and that the technology has had more time to fall into the hands of the unscrupulous.

Dance of Knives is a highly recommended debut novel. I’m quite keen to find out what McMahon will be up to next!

Last modified: September 18, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (

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