Ivan Cat,
The Burning Heart of Night
(DAW, 2002)

When I read a novel such as Ivan Cat's The Burning Heart of Night, I can't help wondering why some people dismiss science fiction as a lesser form of literature. Cat's marvelous storytelling and creative world building certainly belie that attitude.

In the future depicted in The Burning Heart of Night, Earth has seeded colonies throughout the galaxy thanks to "fugueships," organic creatures fitted out to transport colonists and equipment. The colonists sleep in suspended animation, and the fugueships are piloted by individuals who are immune to the effects of fugue, a narcoleptic substance produced by the creatures. The pilots' systems slow down to the point where what they experience in a day is the equivalent of one "real time" year.

Lindal Karr is the pilot of Long Reach and, like other pilots, Karr has developed a close rapport with his ship. He is horrified to discover a saboteur on board, especially since there is little he can do when he is operating in "slow time." Ultimately, his ship crashes into the ocean on a planet called New Ascension, setting the water on fire.

New Ascension's colony is plagued with a lethal virus that can be controlled by sharing blood with the sentient natives of the planet, the Khafra. But the exchange is one-way in its effect, and after three "Sacraments," the khafra's resistance is weakened, and he or she dies.

These Khafra are domesticated, taken from their mothers as kits and force-bonded to their human partners, so they are conditioned to accept the ritual of Sacrament once their partners reach the reproductive years when humans become susceptible. (This is delayed as long as possible with hormone treatments, leaving much of the colony in a state of early adolescence.)

Jenette Tesla, daughter of the colony's leader, finds it unacceptable and recruits Karr in her plan to make peace between the colonists and the Khafra and to put an end to Sacrament. In their quest, they find themselves part of a prophetic event.

Cat creates not only a strange and vividly described world, but builds an entire culture with its own folklore and theology, two forms of communication which act interdependently, technology and a highly defined social structure. The reader connects with both human and Khafra characters because they are credible and intriguing.

The plot is packed with tension and is tightly woven, containing moments both horrific and amusing. Cat knows how to leaven the tale with well-placed humor without diluting the suspense. Furthermore, he raises fascinating issues for the reader's exploration.

Ivan Cat's The Burning Heart of Night is a more than satisfying read for those willing to be open-minded about a much-maligned literary genre.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 11 October 2002

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