From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Book Review: Xenopath by Eric Brown

Telepathic detectives? Alien corpses? And a wholly unusual (to me) sci-fi slant involving Indian culture? I was intrigued just by Xenopath‘s cover blurb. The artwork, by Jon Sullivan, is terrific: a high-tech city/space station punctuated by a crashed spaceship. The chapter titles hint without giving away (“Mind Noise” and “Voice” are good examples). The first three pages are filled with praise on Mr. Brown’s many books: nine novels, six novellas, and six collections –- an impressive list that works out to slightly over a novel a year since his first, Meridian Days, was published in 1992.

The main character, Vaughan, starts out the book by taking an unexpected call from an old associate; that call precipitates him into a series of increasingly more dangerous events which eventually put everything he loves at risk. The pace is smooth and fast, and the author’s vision offers a nice projection of what current techology might become, without glossing over typical flaws. For example, Vaughan’s wrist phone, the description of which put me in mind of Dick Tracy, has poor reception while Vaughan is underneath the spaceship. (Well, duh!) That tiny detail made the not-so-unique video wrist-phone concept much more believable for me.

Pham, a seven-year-old girl with a dream of moving up from the lowest levels of poverty to the immensely rich world (literally) far above her head, shows the reader the gritty underside of Vaughan’s world. Tired of working in a sweatshop, Pham runs away and travels to the highest level of the space station, confident that she will find a way to fit in and find work once she arrives. Once there, however, she accidentally stumbles across a piece of the very plot Vaughan is tracking down, and is forced to run away once more—from men intent on killing her this time.

She and Vaughan eventually must join forces to solve a deadly mystery, and the partnership of a seven-year-old idealist and cynical, telepathic detective turns out effective enough that I suspect we’ll see more about these two in future books.

The writing is studded with phrases I had to stop and reread because I liked them so much, such as:

[She] turned on a stiletto heel that endangered the thick pile carpet. . . .

The multilayered spaceport/city where the lowest levels are for the poor and the highest levels are for the rich is brought to life with crisp, vibrant detail. A few spots seemed a little thin, such as the character and setup of Dr. Rao; reading it, I instantly thought of a recent indie film hit, Slumdog Millionaire–but not so strongly as to turn me off the book. There are plenty of well-rounded characters, such as the aforementioned Vaughan, to balance out the occasional “stock” feel.

I only ran into problems in the last hundred or so pages, when I found myself questioning premises and increasingly unhappy over details: such as the wear a hundred thousand year old cliff should show, and how someone with a laser bolt through their brain could possibly be healed in moments by an alien with limited knowledge of human anatomy.

On balance, however, I did thoroughly enjoy the novel. The vivid descriptions, solid writing, and fast paced action are all solid enough to allow me to recommend not only this book, but this author, to other readers.

The next book in this series, Cosmopath, is due out in January 2010, and I’m looking foward to picking that one up for my own enjoyment. I hope Cosmopath has more adventures involving Pham; she’s an engaging character, and I can’t wait to see what she’s like as an adult!

Eric Brown’s web site can be found at: [http://www.ericbrown.co.uk/]

Jon Sullivan, the cover artist, has an impressive website at: [http://www.jonsullivanart.com]

Xenopath
Eric Brown
Solaris, 2009
ISBN-13: 978-1-84416-742-5
ISBN-10: 1-84416-742-9

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