S.L. Viehl,
Blade Dancer
(Roc, 2003)

Jory Rask's story begins with her mother's painful death, a ruined attempt at an illegal burial and her own publicly degrading exportation by a xenophobic human government. Before the day is fully over, the damsel could be considered well into distress. Fortunately, Jory is the center of S.L.Viehl's Blade Dancer, and Viehl doesn't make women to be rescued. Even on the way down, Jory's internal monologue never stops looking up -- to the stars, which she knows hold another culture and a chance to honor her mother in a more vital way. Jory's determination carries her through intergalactic cultures in a search for family she's never met and battles she hadn't imagined, and carries the reader along with her.

Jory's mission sounds frighteningly complicated at first: Travel to her mother's home planet of Joren, find six other orphans of mixed blood like herself, and somehow find a place for them in the societies that have rejected them -- if the others still exist. But it's not long before Jory's sheer certainty makes this part of her quest seem almost guaranteed -- and that's when the real troubles begin.

Jory Rask may be Viehl's most appealing hero to date. Even when losing her mind to chemically guided romance, Jory keeps her focus and works for what she values. Jory is a particularly female lead; she fights to gain family and belonging, and to honor her mother's promise. Viehl has the skill and the guts to show her characters drawing strength from their connections, even when that family limits their choices. Jory is allowed her pride and her mistakes without having to redeem herself for either, and it makes the entire story stronger. With such a strong center character, the other orphans of the Jorenians are free to grow without stealing the stage. Jory's lover Kol comes off as the least interesting of the crew, defined more by his relationship with Jory than any individual experience. Their struggles constitute a large part of the tale, and an irritating one, since their eventual union is broadcast from their first meeting.

Luckily there's plenty of juicier developments along the way to provide some less predictable conflict among the siblings of honor. Viehl keeps the martial training lively and instructive, made more dangerous by an understated antagonist who almost destroys the entire Houseclan. And just when the story seems to be approaching a comforting happy ending, seemingly innocuous bits of history and secondary characters unify to reveal a truly surprising conspiracy and prompt an unlooked for total battle.

Blade Dancer isn't the most challenging or complete piece of science fiction; I find Viehl's own Stardoc books have more depth, and many themes of the book ultimately seem disposable. Still, it offers an exciting journey with likeable interesting companions, and the pleasure of witnessing the intelligent, healthily flawed relationships that are Viehl's greatest strength in writing.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 19 June 2004

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