Three Book Recommendations – Janet Kagan

I posted on Facebook that I’d begun reading Janet Kagan’s Hellspark to my son, and a number of people said they hadn’t heard of the book, or they’d heard of it but hadn’t read it. I’m here to try to remedy that!

Janet was one of my favorite writers. Her work was full of heart and love and warmth, and I always feel better after reading them. She won the 1993 Hugo award for her novelette “The Nutcracker Coup.” She was also kind enough to offer me advice and encouragement when I was starting out.

Sadly, she only produced three novel-length works. I’m a fan of all three, and fully recommend them.

Uhura's Song - CoverUhura’s Song [Amazon | B&N] – A number of people have described this as one of the best Star Trek novels ever.

Years ago, Lt. Uhura befriended a diplomat from Eeiauo, the land of graceful, cat-like beings. The two women exchanged songs and promised never to reveal their secret. Now the U.S.S. Enterprise is orbiting Eeiauo in a desperate race to save the inhabitants before a deadly plague destroys them. Uhura’s secret songs may hold the key to a cure — but the clues are veiled in layers of mystery.

I love the focus on Uhura, the character development, the emphasis on song and culture and taboo and historical conflict and courage. I love the aliens and their names and their characterization and their struggle to do what’s right.

It’s a book that will make you feel good about Star Trek, and about the universe in general.

It’s available as an ebook, or you can pick up a used copy of the print edition.

Hellspark - CoverHellspark [Amazon | B&N] – A standalone SF novel with beautiful worldbuilding, with an emphasis on culture and language and relationships.

The members of the survey team on the newly discovered planet Flashfever are at each other’s throats. Both the local wildlife and the local weather keep trying to zap them. No one can tell if the indigenous creatures named “sprookjes” are sapient, because they insist on parroting the surveyors’ attempts at communication. The surveyors themselves, all from different civilizations, keep stepping on one another’s cultural toes. When a member of the team is found dead, no one knows whether he was killed by a sprookje or another surveyor; and the implications are unpleasant either way.

This description (from Tor) captures the plot, but misses the absolute joy that is protagonist Tocohl Sosumo. Tocohl is a Hellspark — a trader with a gift for language and culture. She’s brought in to help determine whether the sprookjes have their own language, which would prove their sentience. She’s bright, capable, tough, thoughtful, loving, and a delight. Then there’s her childlike AI Maggy, and a cast of wonderfully different characters, all from fascinatingly different cultures.

The worldbuilding in this one makes me despair of my own writing ability. Kagan plunges you into the middle of a well-developed universe, and invites you along for the ride. My son and I are only about 50 pages in. He commented that there are a lot of words he doesn’t recognize, and we talked about how the author was creating new words and worlds and aliens and so on. He’s been enjoying that immersion, and it’s even led to some good conversations about culture and body language and personal space and language and more.

The book is currently out of print and not yet available electronically, but you should be able to track down a used copy for a relatively reasonable price.

Mirabile - CoverMirabile [Amazon | B&N] – This is a collection of six stories about Annie Masmajean, aka Mama Jason, a third-generation colonist on the planet Mirabile.

There’s a problem on the planet Mirabile with Dragon’s Teeth. The humans from Earth sent to colonize the planet on a generations-long voyage through space lost some essential information in transit. Now, in the early decades of human settlement, the Earth plants and animals genetically programmed to proliferate the old species (so that, for instance, a cow might sometimes give birth to a deer, that will breed true, except that sometimes the deer will give birth to a moose…) are occasionally producing mutants. Thus the carnivorous Kangaroo Rex is born, and the Loch moose monster, and the voracious Frankenswine, Dragon’s Teeth that threaten the ecology of Mirabile and perhaps the very survival of the colonists.

Just reading the description should give a sense of how much fun these stories are. It’s been a while since I’ve read this one — I need to remedy that — so my recollection is a little blurry on the details. But I do remember Mama Jason being another of Janet’s wonderful, good-hearted, take-no-crap protagonists. And I remember that, like all of Janet Kagan’s work, reading this one made me happy.

This is probably the hardest of the three books to find. Like Hellspark, it’s out of print and not available electronically. But like the others, I highly recommend reading it if you get the chance.