Julie E. Czerneda,
A Thousand Words for Stranger
(DAW, 1997)

I picked out Julie E. Czerneda's first science fiction novel, A Thousand Words for Stranger, from the list of recommendations Amazon.com provided because it was the first book that wasn't a title from an author whose books I'd purchased. That may seem like a capricious reason for buying a book, but in this case, it was pure serendipity.

She is lost in the back alleys of a strange city on a foreign planet after fleeing an attack on herself and her escort. She doesn't know her name or where she's from -- she simply has a compulsion to find a ship -- a particular ship -- and get off the planet. And after a nasty encounter with some space pirates, she finds her ship, the Silver Fox, captained by Jason Morgan, a trader. Morgan gives her a berth, practical clothes and a name -- Sira -- and true to her wishes, takes her off planet.

What Sira doesn't know is that Morgan has been hired to find her and get her away by Barac, a member of the Clan, humanoid aliens capable using their special powers to move through space via a source of power known as the M'hir. Clanspeople are generally feared and disliked in any part of the galaxy in which they live, and they avoid humans as well, living in enclaves and viewing humans with distaste. Although she doesn't realize it, Sira is a Clanswoman, and possibly one of the most powerful to exist. Still, Morgan feels more than a duty to Sira; he's beginning to feel an attraction as well.

Sira and Morgan begin a breakneck getaway from various and sundry Clanspeople, Enforcers of the interstellar Trade Pact, space pirates, and an unknown but powerful stalker. Along the way, Sira begins to break through some of the blocks in her memory as she discovers that Morgan has telepathic powers of his own which he can use to help her. And just when she doesn't think she can be surprised any more, the truth emerges and throws her completely. If there are a thousand words for stranger, then Sira thinks that "Sira" has to be one of them.

My word, can this woman tell a story! There is a space-opera flavor to the tumultuous and convoluted plot, but it is never overdone. Rather, Czerneda employs a light touch, deftly controlling the many threads as well as building a convincing societal structure. What is most remarkable is that she uses nearly every hoary space opera or thriller convention -- the roguish spacer, the feisty and exotic heroine, amnesia, a humanoid race with incredible powers, among others -- and gives them all new life. The plot is fresh and original, spiced with humor and hinting gently and kindly at its roots.

While Sira narrates much of the story in first person, Czerneda uses "interludes" in third person to flesh out the narrative. The device not only works, it works well. The interludes never distract from Sira's part of the story; Czerneda's timing is impeccable. The characters are complex and well rounded, and Sira is a terrific heroine: brave, but smart enough to be scared, bright, and funny. Morgan is also an appealing character, and many readers will develop a fondness, as I did, for Huido, his huge and insect-like friend.

I've done the hard part -- I found the book for you. If you like fast-paced and convincing adventures with a science fiction setting and strong, convincing characters, take a step into the Trade Pact Universe (this is the first book in a projected series) and see for yourself.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]



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