Light

by M. John Harrison

Cover image

Series: Kefahuchi Tract #1
Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: 2002
Printing: September 2004
ISBN: 0-553-38295-0
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 310

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M. John Harrison is one of those writers, like Gene Wolfe, who garners a great deal of acclaim from fellow writers but doesn't reliably sell well. This is the first of his books that I've read, picked up because it was a Tiptree winner and recommended highly by Emerald City.

Light is three stories of three people at different points in time, one in the present day or near future and two others in the more distant future. Each story also involves flashbacks to earlier points in the lives of the main characters, and rather than merging, the three stories stay separate and interrelate in obvious and inovbious ways. It demands some attentiveness from the reader to keep everything straight, but I found it fit together reasonably well without too much work. It is, however, a book that I left wondering how many subtleties I was missing.

The writing is just beautiful: tight, descriptive, evocative, never slipping into infodumps or extended exposition. I can see why Harrison is as well-liked as he is by other authors. The level of craft that he puts into his writing makes it marvelous to read, a dramatic improvement over the skill of far better-known authors. He describes alien technology, psychotic mindsets, and future slums with equal adroitness and memorable turns of phrase.

I had somewhat more of a problem with the plot, but this isn't the fault of the plot itself so much as a matter of my personal taste. The stories do read more as character studies than as traditional stories, and while events do occur and the stories reach conclusions, I was left feeling like I had watched a slice of someone's life, or perhaps a beginning, and not like I'd read about a distinct event with a true ending. The characters don't so much truly grow as find circumstances better suited to their own internal quirks, and while all three protagonists are beautifully well-drawn, I didn't particularly like any of them. Even Seria, the K-ship pilot, the closest to traditional space opera, and my favorite of the lot, was too petulent for me to warm to her fully.

Towards the end of the book, I started having a bad feeling about the likelihood of Harrison pulling out a satisfying ending. He did better than I was fearing, and there's even some explanation of what the heck had been going on (much needed, by me at least), but it's short and rushed and felt a little cheap. I think I would have preferred a somewhat larger and more sweeping plot, and this one felt like a backdrop.

Still, I can recommend this book on the strength of the writing alone, and the K-ship descriptions were some of the most evocative and believable bits of writing about starship combat that I've ever read. Based on Light at least, Harrison deserves his reputation.

Followed by Nova Swing.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-10-25

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21