Beholder's Eye

by Julie E. Czerneda

Cover image

Series: Web Shifters #1
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: October 1998
ISBN: 0-88677-818-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 413

Buy at Powell's Books

Esen-alit-Quar is a shapeshifter, one of a small group of beings who move between inhabited planets, seek out and learn new forms and new achievements of life, and remember it all even when species destroy themselves. She's the youngest of the web, sharing memories but not personality or practical experience with the other members, and has been sent on her first mission. It involves nothing but observation, learning, and remembering the behavior of a new alien race, but when a human mission to the same world goes horribly wrong, she can't help interfering to try to save their lives.

Beholder's Eye is very similar to A Thousand Words for Stranger in the feel of its world: far-flung inhabited planets, a wide variety of aliens, more loose trade federations than empires, and fairly generic space opera technology levels. The aliens are better, though, and hearing a story from the perspective of a shape-shifter is a great way to present them. Esen's viewpoint, emotions, and physical reactions are affected strongly by the form that she takes, and Czerneda uses this to excellent dramatic and comedic effect.

Esen is a great character. She starts the book diving in to help a human (the inevitable love interest, fitting the pattern of Czerneda's books, but the romantic subplot is subtle, reasonable, and well-done), ends up as a protector and mysterious wise figure to him, and is clearly the most competent and capable one for the majority of the book. It's a refreshing change from damsels in distress. Even the stock communication difficulties and misunderstandings of this sort of romance sub-plot have well-grounded explanations in the logic of the universe and Esen's race. It's great fun to see Ragem's determined curiosity slowly untangle Esen's identity, all from Esen's exasperated and secretive perspective.

I can't say as much for the villain, who is literally a primal force of pure evil. This is a fun romp through exotic backgrounds with some emotional exploration and angst for seasoning, not a deep analysis of conflicting ideals or shades of grey. The good guys and the bad guys settle into appropriate groups fairly quickly. If one pokes too hard, one uncovers a similar lack of depth elsewhere in the background: Esen's web are remarkably distinct personalities for sharing all emotions and nearly all memory, the hidden ancient beings of pure altruistic intent opposed by the force of primal evil is a bit stock as backgrounds go, and the characters other than Esen and Ragem are painted with a scant few brushstrokes and don't change significantly over the course of the story. This isn't a book to dig into, analyze, or study for hidden resonances and meanings, but like the other Czerneda I've read, it's solid space opera.

This is the first book of a trilogy, but while I see the loose ends from which the next books can be drawn, it has a surprisingly satisfying ending for a first book. It also doesn't end with the main characters falling into each other's arms in the stereotypical way, which I thought was a nice nod to realism in relationships. The plot is nothing special (and carries faint traces of map exploration where the countries are web members), but it doesn't need to be; it's there to give Esen and Ragem a chance to develop. In that, it succeeds, particularly for Esen.

Recommended for light fare, and slightly better than A Thousand Words for Stranger. I'm curious to see if the rest of this series holds up as well against the rest of the Trade Pact series.

Followed by Changing Vision.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-04-11

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