S.L. Viehl, |
There's plenty to like about S.L. Viehl's latest novel, Bio Rescue. Dair mu'Teresa is one of Viehl's trademark likeable, outgoing heroines. Her air battles, and those of her alien flight crew, are thrilling and detailed in a way visuals can't capture. The interaction between the Skartesh, the humans and the native amphibious Kevarzangians is a welcome return to the themes of interspecies politics that have been missing since the break from the Stardoc books. The furry Skartesh are a special delight, with a thousand small signals that theirs is a truly alien culture. After all, no human culture, however extreme, has made a habit of public urination.
The tension between these alien cultures drives Dair's story. Born a member of Kevarzangia's native species, she's been grafted with enough human parts that she might as well be a crossbreed. The physical differences make her own species uncomfortable with her and humans too quick to assume common ground. Though Kevarzangia is relatively untouched by the larger Hsktskt war of Viehl's created galaxy, their crack planetary pilots provide defense and support for refugees fleeing less fortunate planets. Heading one of these squads is, of course, Dair, something of a living argument against the multispecies conflicts that still prevent a unified stand against the Hsktskt. However enlightened her own planet may be, others are devoted to their eccentricities, and it's while preserving a ship of one such species, the furred Skartesh, that Dair inspires that creation of the humane Bio Rescue effort. The Bio Rescue is itself torn on points of alien instinct. Within that main plot, the book flows well.
Unfortunately, there's a second plot grafted on to the first, as awkward as the heroine's human features. The champion of this second plot is named Onkar, and he will not go away. Onkor is abrasive. He's domineering. He constantly challenges Dair for control of the flight pod. And I don't think it spoils any tension to say that he fast becomes the dominant love interest in the story.
The antagonist as love interest is a standard fiction trope verging on cliche, and Viehl has shown herself skilled at handling it in her previous work. But in Bio Rescue, the romantic plot feels forced, an addition tacked onto an already solid tale to force some extra emotion. For most of Bio Rescue, Onkar is a minor player, not just in the plot but in our heroine's thoughts. When he does interact with the rest of the cast, he comes off as possessive and paranoid, not loving. To Viehl's credit, he's not an entirely unsympathetic character. Flashbacks and occasional viewpoint changes show that he is acting from his own perception of love and dealing with some substantial social handicaps. But just wanting someone doesn't mean you deserve them, or that they would make a good couple. Onkar is violent, coercive and threatening, and Dair's primary reaction to him throughout most of the story is one of annoyance, and the reader easily shares that emotion.
Even with Onkar, there are some fine moments in Bio Rescue. The secondary relationships that grow on the sidelines of Dair and Onkar's strained romance are rich, and not limited to love affairs. Dair's partnership with her cousin is a playful, enviable friendship, and the love between her native father and adopted mother seems more tender in its lack of explanation. The basic plot, though simple, does a fine job of hiding its secrets until they're good and ready for revelation.
But there's nothing new here. Viehl's already established that she knows how to write strong heroines and decent nonhuman characters. Bio Rescue offers nothing fresh to the longtime reader, no shock or feeling that Viehl is stretching her writer's muscles. It's not just a matter of themes, but pacing; the tension builds and is released in predictable cycles. With several books under her belt, Viehl should have the confidence to strike out for new waters. This is a comfortable revisit to an old friend's home, not an adventure.
Still, Bio Rescue is solid sci-fi, better by far than a tonnage of licensed property stories lining the bookshelf racks. It might even be a better introduction to Viehl's work than the more immersive Stardoc series. If it's not the most exciting book, it's at least satisfying enough to keep this fan hoping for new challenges to come.