Julie E. Czerneda,
Beholder's Eye
(DAW, 1998)

There's no such thing as sophomore slump for Julie E. Czerneda. With an imaginative and suspenseful plot and vividly real characters, her second novel, Beholder's Eye, exceeds all expectations for readers of A Thousand Words for Stranger.

In her natural form, Esen-alit-Quar is one of six entities which are extensions of one whole entity, called the Web, the only one of its kind. Its self-defined mission is to study intelligent life throughout the galaxy, preserving customs, culture and forms right down to the cellular level, and to share the information with the other entities in the Web. Once a culture has been studied, each of them can take on the form of an individual from that culture.

The oldest of them is Ersh, millenia old, in a sense their mother. She is the one who guides them, assigns them, and who makes the rules, of which the primary one is to never reveal their true nature to anyone who is not of the Web. Esen, at just over 500 years, is the youngest.

Her first mission to the planet Kraos is uneventful until fate throws her in with a human, Paul Ragem, part of a first contact team. At first, he thinks she's merely a member of the species whose form she has taken, but when a crisis comes, caution is forced out the window. In a heartbeat, Esen is tangled in a different kind of web -- the web of friendship -- and nothing in her training has prepared her for this.

If this isn't difficult enough, there is another mysterious entity making its way through space, literally feeding on the populations of planets and spaceships. If that isn't bad enough, Esen discovers that the creature has a particular penchant for Web-beings. Driven to protect her Web sisters and her friends, Esen embarks on what seems like an impossible odyssey to find and destroy the creature -- before it finds her.

Czerneda punctuates Esen's first person narrative with passages called "Out There" which describe the creature's progress through space. These sections feel remote to the story until they begin to relate more closely with it, heightening the tension almost unbearably. Czerneda deftly balances the suspense with humor, and her imagination for creating species seems to know no limits.

Her characterizations are as strong as her plots. Esen is an appealing and spirited individual, and readers will recognize her self assurance born of enthusiasm as well as her self doubts. She is courageous not because she is fearless but because she acts in spite of her fears; her growth into her friendship with Ragem is convincing, well-developed, and touching. For his part, Ragem is a fully realized and well-rounded character. He doesn't dominate the scene or try to take over, and his respect and love for Esen is well-delineated.

As in A Thousand Words for Stranger, the story comes first, set against the science fiction background; I suspect that even the most anti-science fiction reader would have trouble putting down Beholder's Eye. Czerneda is definitely an author to watch.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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