Skeen's Leap

by Jo Clayton

Cover image

Series: Skeen #1
Publisher: Open Road
Copyright: 1986
Printing: 2016
ISBN: 1-5040-3845-2
Format: Kindle
Pages: 320

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Skeen is a Rooner: a treasure hunter who finds (or steals) artifacts from prior civilizations and sells them to collectors. She's been doing it for decades and she's very good at her job. Good enough to own her own ship. Not good enough to keep from being betrayed by her lover, who stole her ship and abandoned her on a miserable planet with a long history of being temporarily part of various alien empires until its sun flares and wipes out all life for another round.

At the start, Skeen's Leap feels like a gritty space opera, something from Traveller or a similar universe in which the characters try to make a living in the interstices of sprawling and squabbling alien civilizations. But, shortly into the book, Skeen hears rumors of an ancient teleportation gate and is drawn through it into an entirely different world. A world inhabited by the remnants of every civilization that has fled Kildun Aalda during one of its solar flares, alongside native (and hostile) shape-changers. A world in which each of those civilizations have slowly lost their technology from breakdowns and time, leaving a quasi-medieval and diverse world with some odd technological spikes. And, of course, the gate won't let Skeen back through.

This turns out not to be space opera at all. Skeen's Leap is pure sword and sorcery, with technology substituted (mostly) in for the sorcery.

It's not just the setting: the structure of the book would be comfortably at home in a Conan story. Skeen uses her darter pistol and streetwise smarts to stumble into endless short encounters, most of them adding another member to her growing party. She rescues a shapeshifter who doesn't want to be rescued, befriends an adventuring scholar seeking to map the world, steals from an alien mob boss, attaches herself to four surplus brothers looking for something to do in the world, and continues in that vein across the world by horse and ship, searching for the first and near-extinct race of alien refugees who are rumored to have the key to the gate. Along the way, she and her companions occasionally tell stories. Hers are similar to her current adventures, just with spaceships and seedy space stations instead of ships and seedy ports.

Skeen's Leap is told in third person, but most of it is a very tight third-person that barely distinguishes Skeen's rambling and sarcastic thoughts from the narration. It's so very much in Skeen's own voice that I had to check when writing this review whether it was grammatically in first or third. The narrator does wander to other characters occasionally, but Skeen is at the center of this book: practical, avaricious, competent, life-hardened, observant, and always a survivor. The voice takes a bit to get used to (although the lengthy chapter titles in Skeen's voice are a delight from the very start), but it grew on me. I suspect one's feeling about Skeen's voice will make or break one's enjoyment of this book. I do wish she'd stop complaining about her lost ship and the lover who betrayed her, though; an entire book of that got a bit tiresome.

One subtle thing about this book that I found fascinating once I noticed it is its embrace of the female gaze. In most novels, even with female protagonists, descriptions of other characters use a default male gaze, or at best a neutral one. Women are pretty or beautiful or cute; men are described in more functional terms. Skeen's Leap is one of the few SFF novels I've seen with a female gaze that lingers on the attractiveness and shape of male bodies throughout, and occasionally stands gender roles on their head. (The one person in the book who might be Skeen's equal is a female ship captain with a similar background.) It's an entertaining variation.

Despite the voice and the unapologetic female perspective, though, this wasn't quite my thing. I picked up this book looking for a space opera, so the episodic sword-and-sorcery plot structure didn't fit my mood. I wanted deeper revelations and more complex world-building, but that's not on the agenda for this book (although it might be in later books in the series). This is pure adventure story, and by the end of the book the episodes were blending together and it all felt too much the same. It doesn't help that the book ends somewhat abruptly, at a milestone in Skeen's quest but quite far from any conclusion.

If you're looking for sword and sorcery with some SF trappings and a confident female protagonist, this isn't bad, but be warned that it doesn't end so much as stop, and you'll need (at least) the next book for the full story.

Followed by Skeen's Return.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-11-20

Last modified and spun 2018-11-21