Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A modern space opera

The Duke of Uranium

By John Barnes

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In one way, The Duke of Uranium is a blast from the past. I grew up on the space operas of Robert Heinlein, C. L Moore, Doc Smith and Andre Norton just to name a few. John Barnes seems to be channeling a few of these writers in this modern but somewhat retro space fantasy. I even sense a smitten of Orson Scott Card minus the pretentiousness and arrogance. Like most good space operas, it seems to be catering to the young adult, mostly boys, but intelligent enough for adults. The Duke of Uranium is a entertaining tale of space espionage and galactic intrigue.

So why am I not that all that enthusiastic about this novel? It does a lot right but some things bothered me...a lot. First, I couldn't really believe in the hero, Jax Jinnaka . He starts as a spoiled rich kid until his girl friend is kidnapped. Soon he finds out that not only is his girl friend a princess. But he has been raised to be a cog in a complex and colorful wheel of conflict between various power players. With that kind of scenario, you would think you would see sort of a sea-change between spoiled brat and warrior, But it never shows up. In fact Jax seems a bit passive, traveling and thinking a lot and getting saved by other people, to be called a hero. The other characters didn't help much neither . They often seem introductory, like being a set-up for a series.

Then there is the made up language. Many science fiction writers use fictional words and and slang to give an exotic feel to their stories. But Barnes' made up words do not always make sense. There should be some kind of mini-Rosetta stone embedded in the tale to help the reader feel part of the language and to have an actual sense of what they mean. To this reader, it just felt annoying. Admittedly I am no fan of this type of imaginary word play. Yet even the most used word in the book didn't seem to have a distinct meaning. I never could figure out whether "Toktru" meant "Darn!, "True Dat!", "Really?" or "Fergitboutit". As Jaz would say, I didn't dak it.

Tip: Add a glossary to the next book.

But there is a thing the author does exceedingly well and it holds promise for the rest of the Jax Jinnala novels. Barnes is a master at world building. The future alt-reality that he creates in quite vivid both in the harder (and more technical) science fiction aspects and in the description of the socio-politcal intrigue of the future society. The structure of his hierarchy of power brokers and their distinct philosophies is my favorite aspect of the tale. It reminded me a bit of Ian Banks' Culture series, another modern space opera. The author uses a lot of his novel to build his world and while it does slow down the action a little, especially in the middle, I still found it fascinating. In my opinion, world building is what makes or breaks a science fiction adventure novel like this one.

One more thing. I really liked the little computers with attitude.

So overall, this is a pleasant novel that holds promise for the rest of the series. I would like to see Jax become more three dimensional and more of an actual hero. I must say I didn't find it totally successful due to the issues I mentioned. But those who loved the science fiction of Heinlein and others, or those who just like to lose themselves in a different world, will find something to like.

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