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West of January, Dave Duncan, Bakka Books, 2002, 319 pp.
Note: West of January is the 4th in Bakka Books’ ongoing Canadian sf reprint series, as published by Red Deer Press. West of January was originally published in 1989.
West of January is an adventure novel backed by meticulous world building. Duncan transports us to the planet of Vernier, a colonial world that has lapsed into ignorance due to its harsh conditions. Usually a regressive planet is just an excuse for a lazy writer to give us some generic fantasy settings and not do the hard work of thinking about what technology might look like in the future or other challenges. Duncan turns all that on its head, as Vernier’s unique circumstances make for a believable society, some interesting biological speculation, and a built-in crisis generator. West of January takes as its basic premise a planet that has a decades-long day (more precisely: “Revolution -- 264.6 days; rotation -- 263.6”, from an epigram on page 8), and every bit of speculation is founded on that fact.
Knobil grows up as a herdsman on the plains. The herdsman society is a brutal one: each herd is ruled by one man, who tries to get as many woollies (herd animals) and women as possible, killing his sons or exiling them at puberty, and fighting off challengers. Knobil is likely the son of an angel, even though his father doesn’t seem to realize it. Angels are a travelling group of people, armed with guns (a rarity on Vernier), and one of the only groups on Vernier who are trying to preserve the old knowledge. Furthermore, angels understand the big picture: while the sun seems motionless, it is actually moving extremely slowly. Soon the plains will be in High Summer and all of the water will dry up and all of the grass will wither and die. But westward progress for the herds is blocked by some geographical features, so the angels, few in number, have spread out to try and pass the word to the herdsfolk. With not much luck, due to the stubbornness and separation of each ruling herdsman.
Fortunately, Knobil gets a ride off the plains with an angel, even though this is forbidden. He ends up with the seafolk, a carefree group of people who live on a large body of water in a symbiotic system with some large whale-like creatures known as the Great Ones. The seafolk are having some fertility difficulties, so they welcome Knobil in a way he might not have been expecting. But the seafolk have the same problem as the herdsfolk: High Summer is approaching and soon their body of water will dry up. Knobil gets involved the effort to get the seafolk to migrate; after that, he has some rather nasty experiences that he survives through determination and no small amount of luck. In each step of the adventure of his life, he encounters either a consequence of the slow day of his planet or of the lifeforms that were living there before human arrival. More on the excellent biological speculation of West of January in a minute.
I don’t want to give away too much about the ending. All through the story, Knobil is moving from one strange society to another, learning more about the planet of Vernier than anyone else in the process. He even spends a great deal of time among the angels, absorbing knowledge and subconsciously planning his big move. The last chapter tells us how Knobil goes about changing Vernier according to his strategy; personally, I found this to be one of the most interesting parts of the book, but Duncan skims through this part like a breeze. Two thoughts come to mind. To write this section as extensively as it seems to require would have doubled the book’s length. Secondly, West of January takes as its subject the education of Knobil, as his life experiences bring him to the point of being capable of action. What comes after is of less concern in this scheme. And of course, it’s better for a book to leave the reader wanting more than to overstay its welcome!
The planet itself has a starring role, and at first, it’s easy to miss how carefully Duncan has constructed the world. I’ve mentioned the book’s crisis generator: each society that Knobil visits has to adapt in some way to the slow, slow passage of the sun. That passage is just slow enough to be beyond the short-term point of view of most people, and migrating a comfortable or insular tribe is never easy. More so than the planet-wide world building, I enjoyed the biological development of Vernier. What kinds of species would develop on a world like Vernier? They all have human-given names, so at first, the reader doesn’t quite grasp their essential strangeness (and there are obvious Earth species as well, such as horses -- Duncan, again, not missing a trick). The woollies, for instance, are enormous, slow-moving herd animals; the angels live on even larger creatures known as snortoises. I found the snortoises especially emblematic of the planet: they move continuously westward, but at a pace as slow as the Vernier itself, thus they always live in their preferred climate of twilight. Knobil himself is a wetlander, someone born in the chaotic west-most area where the sun is first melting the ice of a very long night. His pale skin leaves him vulnerable to Traders, who have a high price on wetlander slaves. Why is this the case? We find out about this, and a very horrifying species indigenous to Vernier, in a later chapter that nicely ties earlier plot threads together.
West of January is an exciting story with a solid foundation. That doesn’t happen as often as it should, so I was quite pleasantly surprised by this book. Highly recommended.
Last modified: September 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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