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Trickster, the third novel in Steven Harper's Silent Empire series (after Dreamer and the prequel Nightmare), begins with the galaxy caught in the throes of a Despair, an affliction that arose from the events of Dreamer. The Silent -- telepaths who have access to the plane of existence known as the Dream -- have now lost their ability to enter the Dream, and the intergalactic communication they made possible is completely destroyed. Nine out of ten Silent cannot enter the Dream, making those who can of even greater value to those who would hoard them like rare jewels. Greedy corporations and amoral governments will do anything to keep these able Silent loyal, or enslaved.

It's Kendi Weaver's job to thwart them. Kendi is the central character of the Silent Empire novels. In Dreamer, he was the hot-headed maverick pilot who fought valiantly against the Silent mastermind who created the Despair. In Nightmare, he was an enslaved Silent, rescued by the altruistic Children of Irfan, an organization dedicated to nurturing, safeguarding, and empowering the Silent. Kendi is torn by his duty to the Children and the burning desire to find his family, who were also sold into slavery. Now in command of his own ship (the Poltergeist), he vows to honor both obligations. The major theme of Trickster is family: the search for loved ones, nurturing existing family ties, and adding to one's own family unit.

The novel appropriately begins with an attempt to rescue a small child from L.L. Venus, a chocolate conglomeration that uses Silent as slave labor. The child's mother Harenn has been searching for her son Bedj-ka ever since he was sold as an infant by her sleazy husband, Isaac Todd. Kendi's crafty negotiating skills come into play here, and Harper takes several shots at the soulless corporate practices of the chocolate farm where Bedj-ka is forced to work. The farm is displayed with such a brutal eye for detail that one can't help but draw parallels to sweat shops and industrial farms. The satire is handled with enough subtlety that Harper makes his point without overstating it.

After the L.L. Venus adventure, Kendi begins the search for his own family, and this is where the novel turns into a high-octane thriller. The Poltergeist crew approaches a massive space station run by Silent Acquisitions, another Silent-exploiting corporation. Harper rivets the reader's attention on the space station, with the Poltergeist crew weaving intricate plots and counterplots against four wily villains. Harper has a good feel for dramatic tension, and makes sure to not make things too easy for Kendi and his team. The space station is also rendered vividly, with several different cultures residing there. The most unnerving culture depicted is the Collection, a cult that uses brainwashing techniques to make captured Silent loyal to Silent Acquisitions. There is also an amusing set piece in a brothel on the station that, though outrageous, is also completely plausible; the alien prostitutes have to be read to be believed.

In this part of the novel, the rest of the cast gets to shine, especially Kendi's lover Ben Rymar, who is the resident computer whiz, and Gretchen, a bitter Silent who can no longer enter the Dream. They are aided by the pilot Lucia dePaolo, a Child of Irfan who is in awe of Kendi. All of these characters have vivid personalities, hopes, dreams, and fears; even their speech patterns are distinct. The subplots woven around them not only bring their personalities to life but also enrich the novel's theme of family. In Harenn's story, for instance, she must build a relationship with her young son, while barely restraining her urge for revenge against Isaac Todd, who is a prisoner on the Poltergeist. Gretchen, the enfant terrible of the crew, is always on the knife edge of letting her resentment interfere with her duty. And yet, her crewmates are the closest thing she has to a family. Ben and Kendi, however, have the most moving subplot: they want to have their own family, despite the obvious roadblock. They also have wildly different ideas on how to make that happen. Their ultimate solution to the dilemma is a genuine surprise.

The only part of the novel that lacks fireworks is the "reunion" between Harenn and her husband Isaac Todd. His excuses for selling Bedj-ka are certainly ruthless, but also unoriginal. We don't have any real insight into his character, which is a letdown considering Harper's very believable portraits of the other villains in the story. Another quibble is the dialogue. It veers from realistic and even poetic to being dependent on modern-day colloquialisms ("hooking up," "a world of hurt"). The slang doesn't seem to fit an interstellar setting over a thousand years in the future.

These are minor points, though, when considering the entire novel. Trickster is meant to be a thriller -- and succeeds as one -- but it does have many emotionally affecting moments. Of all the sequences in the book, for instance, none is more harrowing than the one set in a colony ship beset by pirates. It's a dark scene that could have been excised to maintain the overall light tone, but its inclusion adds a lot of weight to the book.

The novel has some sexual content and violence, but none of it is gratuitous or explicit. Harper writes each Silent Empire novel to stand alone, but reading the first two books will deepen one's understanding of Trickster's characters and setting. Ultimately, the novel is a fast-paced adventure filled with intrigue and populated with characters you care about, leaving the reader looking forward to the next installment in the series.

 

Copyright © 2004 Mahesh Raj Mohan

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Mahesh Raj Mohan is currently at work on his second novel, and several short stories. He lives in Oregon with his fiancee, the artist and writer Sara Strohmeyer. He interviewed Steven Harper (under his real name, Steven Piziks) for Strange Horizons last October. He drinks organic, fairly traded coffee. To contact him, email maheshrajmohan@yahoo.com.



Mahesh Raj Mohan (email Mahesh) is a writer who lives in Portland, Oregon, with his lovely wife, Sara Strohmeyer. His nonfiction has appeared at Strange Horizons, IROSF, and the Alien Online. He has also published haiku at Scifaikuest and is currently working on several short stories and a novel. His online home is: http://moksh.blogspot.com.
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