by Vonda McIntyre
1998 Nebula Winner for Best Novel
You might recall McIntyre's previous Nebula and Hugo winner Dreamsnake was a book I hated. There were two major reasons for this. First was the plot that built to a "dramatic reveal" that was absolute nonsense (a very common problem with SF). The other was the main character who was better than everyone else in the book, fixed complex problems with no effort, and whose only fault was caring too much.
Just because I call myself Das Übernerd doesn't mean I like reading about übermench.
So eventually McIntyre won just the Nebula with a second novel but unlike some authors I didn't approach with trepedation. The problems in Dreamsnake were ones of a young writer who has yet to learn how to make their characters more richly textured and many fine SF authors have left parsec across plot holes in their weaker works. I didn't have any problems with her actual writing and this time it's set in the court of Louis XIV where everyone was nasty and intrigue ruled the day. It would be really hard for those same faults to break this book.
At this point I want to say that Vonda McIntyre is now on my "never buy" list.
On the eve of reconciliation with the pope a Jesuit priest captures two mermaids and presents them to King Louis but one doesn't survive the trip. Keeping the other alive in the fountain of Apollo at Versaille the priest and natural philospher begins a disection of the corpse looking for an organ that grants immortality. The priest is assisted by his sister who went to court before him and is our protagonist.
In a twist that won't shock anyone who has been exposed to science fiction or fantasy the mermaid that is being treated as a dumb animal is actually intelligent. The sister develops a report with it that allows them to communicate through song and she works desperately to save the mermaid's life while falling in love with the king's most loyal advisor.
So why is McIntyre now shut out for me? After two books I do not believe that she is capable of creating an interesting protagonist. Our lead character as a woman at Versaille is:
- A better artist than anyone at the court. Her sketches impress the king and she designs a medal for him.
- A better scientist than anyone else. She immediately identifies aspects of the mermaid anatomy that other people who should know better miss.
- Composes music well enough to impress Domenico Scarlatti.
- Does calculus in her head and corresponds with Isaac Newton on it.
- Argues theology better than the pope.
- Is working on developing chaos theory.
She's not the only one to be a paragon of perfection: all of the "good" characters are similarly talented. We have the woman born into slavery in Haiti and lived in the household of the main character their entire lives who the second upon gaining freedom becomes a Muslim black radical straight from the 1960's who happens to be the best hair dresser at Versaille. Really. It's not a gradual thing either, it's a switch that suddenly gets flipped midscene. The love interest in a sexually non-threatening athiest who can be quickly identified as the only kind person at court and whose only "fault" is that he's loyal.
These aren't characters, they're charactures. And because they're placed against the much more facinating flawed human beings at Versaille they all rapidly become unlikable. McIntyre can't have that so the characters who previously just had some pretty severe problems before become generic villains toward the end of the book. It didn't succeed in making me like her heroes, just in making me dislike her novel.
What makes it worse is that up until that point about three-quarters of the way through the sections where we're not dealing with the protagonists are interesting. It's clear that McIntyre did her research and rather than infodump it on the readers the portions that she can use are tightly integrated into the structure of the book. When the story that the author is telling is dragging down the interesting parts of the novel then you know that it has serious problems. I had no problem with the overdone "thing being treated as an animal is actually intelligent" story mainly because the characters in it were so uninteresting.
So that is why I won't touch McIntyre's books anymore. Despite the fact that she has demonstrated that she can do some interesting things the fact that she cannot create a character worth reading about has perminantly put me off her works. Mark The Moon and the Sun down as yet another Nebula winning novel to avoid.