West of January
(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
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
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 website--www.reddeerpress.com--and
anyone who loves large-scale, intelligent, literary SF is urged to make
use of it.
Review by John Toon.