Crossing the Line is the 2nd book in Karen Traviss’ Wess’har Wars series, starting with City of Pearl, and running to 6 books at the end (there were 4 when this review was written - don't get confused with some of the references to future work). I can strongly recommend the entire series – classic SF with multiple story-threads, interesting philosophical questions, engaging characters, and humans (or, rather, humanity…) as (one of) the baddies, for once.
Shan Frankland, infected (joined?) with the c’naatat symbiont and showing Wess’har and Bezeri genetic influences, is spending her time with Aran in Constantine, the religious settlement on the 2nd planet circling Cavanagh’s Star (CS2 in military lingo, Bezer’ej to the local alien residents). She is summoned (by a detachment of Wess’har soldiers looking ‘like paramilitary seahorses’ – what an image!) to the city of F’nar on Weser’ej – away from her fellow (to a degree) humans, to live her life and destiny with the powers that be, and that have granted her protection from the humans in the spaceship Actaeon circling the planet. She now learns about the Wess’har society, and she has to work on what she will become, where she will fit in, and what this means to her and to Aran, her fellow Wess’har c’naatat soldier:
Normality. She was twenty-five light-years from home, playing house with an invulnerable alien war criminal and carrying a bizarre parasite that tinkered with her genome when the fancy took it. Just over a year ago she’d packed a bag and set off for a few days’ duty at Mars Orbital, expecting to be home by the end of the week, her biggest worry being that the supermarkets would deliver early and forget to reset her security alarm. And now she would never go home again. Normality.
Lindsay Neville, CO of the Marines that accompanied Shan on her mission aboard the Thetis (now on its way back to Earth – with the crew minus Shan and Lindsay, but plus a detachment of Isenj and Ussissi!), is marking time on the Actaeon, trying to convince its CO (Okurt) to assist her with her very personal mission to get to Bezer’ej, and get her hands on Shan, whom she considers to blame for the death of her infant son, Daniel. But slowly she is learning – why Shan did it, who Shan is, and what it would mean for humanity to get its hands on Shan, with her symbiont who makes its partner near-immortal. The ecological, economical, and martial consequences are mind-boggling. So she sets out, nominally to arrest Shan and bring her back, but in her own mind to destroy Shan, and c’naatat, forever. She is being helped by Rayat, who should (should…) be on the Thetis with the rest of the payload, on his way to earth. But he has his own agenda, being an undercover agent for one of the Earth Governments.
Eddie Michallat, the BBChan correspondent (the only one here, 75 years of cryo-sleep from home – can you spell exclusive?), is in his element meanwhile; gaining access to all parties to the conflict - for information gathering , interviews, and general socializing. The ones he likes the least of the subjects he deals with are the humans – everyone else might be alien, but seems more logical and reasonable to him. So he speaks to Lindsay and Okurt, to all his other information sources on Actaeon, to Shan, Aras and some of the Wess’har matriarch on Weser’ej, to the Isenj Exterior Minister Ual on Umeh – and begins to be manipulated himself, begins to start taking sides. What he slowly learns is that there is no such thing as neutrality if you’re a journalist – what you report, truthfully, or what you don’t report, makes a difference in the run of things.
The book, like its predecessor, City of Pearl, deals with some quite heavy concepts in a very readable way. It touches on topics ranging from personal responsibility for one’s actions (as well as the actions of subordinates – and one’s species!); on memory, shared memory, individuality, and the blurring of the boundaries of those; on love, companionship, relationships, and belonging; and, last but not least, there’s a lot of information on the Wess’har society, history, organization, thinking – and their origin, the World Before (incidentally that’s also the title for the 3rd book in the series). The other large topic driving the story is Ecology, ecological damage and protection, and who is making and enforcing the rules (a bit like Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac, but in space and on steroids):
‘Ual thinks humans have a fixation with vermin’, said Eddie.
‘Define vermin’, said Aras.
‘An animal in an environment where it isn’t wanted, and that can breed in large enough numbers to cause disruptions to health, agriculture, or commerce.’
‘Ah’, said Aras, and paused for a heartbeat. ‘Like humans, then.’
Karen Traviss is a UK based SF writer, working mainly with the US, and during US hours, ie has very little connection with the UK SF scene. She’s a very prolific writer, with 5 Novels and 5 Star Wars books to her name as I write this – no doubt that more are coming! She has been nominated for the Philip K Dick award, and was a finalist for the Locus and the John W Campbell Memorial Award – given the quality of her output it is only a question of time until she wins one!
The book very neatly turns classic SF fare like colonization, alien contact, and vanilla ‘space marine’ military scenarios on their head, given them a new, and very refreshing spin. Her books always have human nature at their heart, with engaging characters you root for, even for the ‘misguided’ ones, and the enigmatic and alien er, aliens.
I guess Crossing the Line would work on its own, but I strongly recommend that you start with City of Pearl, the first book in the series. You will enjoy the first book, and you will get much more from this one, too.
Highly recommended book (and series!).
More Karen Traviss
Title: Crossing the Line
Series: Wess’har Wars
Series Number: 2
Author: Karen Traviss
Reviewer URL: http://skating.thierstein.net
Publisher URL: http://www.eosbooks.com
Publication Date: Nov 2004
Review Date: 2 Feb 2006
Price: USD 7.5