Scott Westerfield,
Fine Prey
(Roc, 1998)

In Fine Prey, Scott Westerfield's brilliant second novel, Earth has been commandeered by the Aya, scaly-winged aliens who communicate through a complex, nuance- and gesture-filled language. The Aya brought with them technological advances which they have shared with the people of their new world -- but as the price, they get to call the shots.

Spider Stone is a human who has been in training at the Aya School since childhood. Learning the language and customs of the Aya, which are inextricably intertwined, she is one of their star pupils. At the end of her training she will be, for all intents and purposes, Ayan.

She spends her days learning and practicing the forms of the Ayan language, but when school lets out for the summer, she's a freelance rider for the fine hunt, a blood sport which arose out of equestrian events. Using virtual reality styled equipment, riders control beasts bred to hunt prey, also specially bred for this purpose, but the matches involve judging for style and jumping.

At the end of her junior year, however, she is drawn into the rougher world of the claw hunt, a more direct and less respected form of hunt, and by extension, into intrigue as complex as speaking Ayan. Spider is drawn deeper into the web of the tangled plots with her newfound friends and lover until it seems as though there's no way out. Even then, Spider's in for the shock of her life.

The pace is breakneck, punctuated with bursts of sharp vivid imagery and a keen sense of language and rhythm. Westerfield writes with economy and a clear crisp style, pushing the envelope of imagination in pursuit of his dazzling ideas. Spider is a likable narrator, and seeing the events through her first-person point of view lends effective and compelling immediacy to the story. The other characters seem less well defined, although I wouldn't mind reading a novel which featured as a main character the enigmatic Quarter, the brilliant and calculating half sister of another character.

For a gripping novel that won't let go, catch a copy of Fine Prey.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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