The January Dancer
Tor Books, 2008
Everything in the universe is older than it seems. Blame Einstein for that. We see what a thing was when the light left it, and that was long ago. Nothing in the night sky is contemporary, not to us, not to one another. Ancient stars exploded into ruin before their sparkle ever caught our eyes; those glimpsed in glowing “nurseries” were crones before we witnessed their birth. Everything we marvel at is already gone.
So begins The January Dancer a modern space opera full of the action, politics, and mystery told with poetic language and deft touch. The book opens up with the appearance of a mysterious bard seeking the story of the titular January Dancer (which goes by a number of other names throughout the story) a mysterious stone that twists its shape. Thereafter the novel unfolds on two levels: the story, told by the scarred man at the harper’s behest, and the interaction between the bard and the scarred man. Both are interesting in their own right with the italicized sections detailing the conversation between the bard and the scarred man providing a kind of running commentary not only the story itself, but on the nature of stories in general.
The first thing that struck me about the story was the quality of Flynn’s prose. Seemingly every other sentence makes you want to stop and mull it over for minutes before moving on. The poetic quality of the prose gives the story an air of mystery and mythology that would be at home in any fantasy or fairy tale but works to equal effect here. Especially in the opening chapters we get such gems as:
Afterward, the Bartneder directs her to a dark corner, where a man sits before a bowl of uiscebeatha. The bowl is empty–or not yet refilled, depending on the direction of one’s thoughts. He is one of those lost men, and it is in this very bowl that he has become lost.
“…Sometimes I think there is only one secret, and all others are but manifestations of it, and if only wer learned what that one secret is, we would know everything”
The scarred man screws up his face. “That’s too mystical for me. i prefer the irony of chance to the certainy of myth. it was luck, not fate. When you have your eye fixed on one thing, it’s easy to stumble over others.”
The harper sets her harp aside. “The ‘certainty’ of myth?”
“Of course. You can have supreme confidence in a thing only when you don’t quite know what that thing is.”
Both those selections come from the An craic chapter breaks that serve as the frame upon which the majority off the narrative hangs while at the same time forming their own distinct narrative. In addition to telling a story within a story, and moving the other events forward the an craic sections serve as a commentary on the nature of story and myth. The ebb and flow between the two stories is jarring at first but once your settled into the pace Flynn has set, and the action/tension generated by both aspects of the narrative begins to ramp up, you become equally invested in both stories; both stories which are in essence part and parcel of the same story.
The prose is direct, but never flowery, but elegant in its simplicity. The second thing that struck me , and perhaps what I struggled with the most, was the constant use of dialects. I can’t say for certain if they are real or made-up but most seem to be a pidgin a number of different dialects. Gaelic/Irish forms a fairly obvious basis for a some of the dialect the most obvious hint being the use of one of my favorite “irish accent” words: “fookin'”. Unless I was reading things wrong Flynn makes reference to a language called “gaelactic” which I found both bemusing and awesome. The use of language and culture is a fascinating way to seed the universe with diversity. Races/Cultures in Flynn’s world see defined more by how they speak than what they look like, which is a fascinating (and as far as I know, novel) approach to examining intergalactic culture.
While I eventually came to like the shifting narrative it can be, on the one hand, a barrier to some readers. Indeed, I struggled with it at the start of the novel and the only thing that kept me reading was the power of Flynn’s prose. As the diverse points of view related in the story told by the scarred man begin to colasece the strenght of the narrative grows. While Flynn stays focused on the story, often flitting from character to character in the early sections of the novel, the final players in the novel’s endgame reveal a deft hand in characterization. The formidable Little Hugh O’Carrol, the often unseen Greystroke, the mysterious Fudir, and deadly Bridget ban form the basis of a diverse cast that really gels towards the end of the novel. Flynn, also lets slip intriguing details about the world(s) he created. I was particularly intrigued by the Fudir’s late reference to modern scientists (Einstein and Newton) as deities.
Difficult as the narrative structure might be the pay-off is certainly worth it. Flynn has created a detailed world steeped in myths both familiar and strange that deserves further exploration. The novel is self-contained and comes to a satisfying conclusion but leaves enough unexplained to maintain the possibility of future stories in the world of The January Dancer; something I certainly hope we see in the future.