First off: great title.

I’m going to excerpt a bit from a review that liked it more than I did because the premise is so high-concept:

I was captivated by this book. Set on a world which revolves so slowly that everyone has to move steadily West in order to escape Dusk and Night, which is a devastating ice world, and avoiding High Summer, so hot it kills everything in its path, West of January is highly original and superbly written. Not only is the world divided into Months and Days, each a particular climate steadily moving west, but the inhabitants are very segregated, each following the same patterns every cycle, never learning from the previous one (that often ends in disaster) because they do not pass their knowledge down.

Vernier is a lost colony on a planet whose rotation is almost the same speed as its revolution, so the habitable zones constantly but slowly move across the planet. So people can be born in the grasslands of Tuesday, north of September, and be three months old when they die of old age. I had a little trouble wrapping my head around this. However, Duncan obviously had it very clear in his head. There’s diagrams and everything. On that level, it’s pretty neat in an old-school, cool idea sf way.

The book starts out very strong, with the protagonist growing up in a weird, vividly depicted herdspeople society. Then he leaves home and it becomes a picaresque, with him visiting a whole bunch of societies which are wildly different from each other. I would have liked this, but there were a couple problems.

One was that the coolest part of the concept got a bit lost in the flurry of “and here’s the sea-people! And the jungle people! And the original settler people!” That’s fine, but there could have been any reason for that; I wanted more of the implications of the 200-year days.

The other was sex. So much sex. Knobil goes somewhere, and every woman in sight flings herself on him. I think Duncan was consciously imitating a classic picaresque form where this sort of thing happens, but it got so irritating. (The only reason I think this is conscious in any way rather than just “because a lot of guys write that” is that I’ve read other books by him and it’s the sort of thing he’d do. That being said, ditto, it’s probably also because a lot of guys write that.) Anyway, it got increasingly boring and ridiculous. A lot of the women were doing it because they wanted some genetic diversity rather than because he was hot, but still.

Finally, the whole book trailed out as it went along, ending in a fizzle. I was really grabbed by it when I started, but ended up putting it down for weeks at some point in the middle. Usually I read his books in one sitting (or two days, etc, depending on interruptions).

Dave Duncan writes sf and fantasy which is pulpy in tone but often driven by genuinely original concepts which are very carefully thought out and then explored in all their implications. For instance, the “A Man of his Word” series has one of the more unique magic systems I’ve encountered in fantasy – it’s word-based magic, but the specific type is one I’ve never seen before or since – and rather than just rest on those laurels, Duncan proceeds to spend a lot of the series taking the concept to unexpected places. His books have plain prose and somewhat basic characterization, which is probably why no one ever mentions him when they’re talking about writers of ideas, but he really is one. He does tend to pop up in discussions of underrated writers, so there is that.

Obviously, West of January is not one of his better books. It looks like an early work that was recently re-issued, so that might explain some things. I’m still pleased to have grabbed a bunch of his books for cheap and for Tool of Satan to have mailed me hard copies of others, and will report on them as I get to them. He’s a genuinely interesting writer and worth reading if you like his kind of thing, which at his best is quirky, surprisingly intelligent takes on pulp sf and fantasy tropes. I like that kind of thing. If you do too, I suggest The Cursed, which has a very odd/cool take on curse-or-blessing (90% curse) powers in a medieval setting; there are some mild "dude wrote this" gender issues but on the other hand the protagonist is a pretty awesome middle-aged female innkeeper. For an epic fantasy series, Magic Casement (A Man of His Word Book 1) is also interesting/quirky, as is the "King's Swords" series (more small-scale, more fighting and politicking, less magic) and-- hey, this is 99 cents today!-- The Reluctant Swordsman (The Seventh Sword Book 1). I have not read the latter but I've been recced it frequently. Interesting premise for sure.

West of January
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional

. . . I want to steal that worldbuilding idea so much now.

Not so much read the book, just steal the worldbuilding idea.
isis: (Default)

From: [personal profile] isis

I read a book, and I am blanking on the name, with the equal-but-opposite worldbuilding: a quickly-rotating planet on which the only city is Terminator, built on rails, that moves around the planet constantly to stay within the habitable zone.
isis: (Default)

From: [personal profile] isis

Good lord, no. It was ... some mainstream SF author, I think, and music (a symphony?) was important, and it took place on a number of different planets of which this was just one.
rmc28: Rachel smiling against background of trees, with newly-cut short hair (Default)

From: [personal profile] rmc28

Wikipedia says Terminator-on-rails features in several Kim Stanley Robinson works. I think I've read one of the short stories but nothing else. (It was a conscious homage to Sherlock Holmes which I did not enjoy as much as the author did.)

Oh yeah, here it is, originally published 1985, reprinted last year in Clarkesworld:
sputnikhearts: (Default)

From: [personal profile] sputnikhearts

HAHAHAHAHAHA cosigned from me, which is ironic because I have been guilty of the VERY SAME THING. (It was Holmes.)
isis: (Default)

From: [personal profile] isis

Hah, you know, when I was writing that I was thinking that it sounded like something KSR would write (and I've read a lot of his novels), but I checked Goodreads and didn't see anything that pinged me.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


I thought Jack of Shadows used a similar idea, but apparently not.
isis: (Default)

From: [personal profile] isis

Yes, I was just going to say - I followed the link above and it linked to Memory of Whiteness and YES THAT IS IT!
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

I decided KSR was Not For Me after Red Mars, but this looks interesting!
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

I read some of his early short stories and novels in the eighties (including that book on Philip K. Dick) and then the Mars trilogy came out and I found it so unreadable and bad, and yet it won so many awards, I was just baffled. I have friends who really liked Years of Rice and Salt, though.
ellen_fremedon: overlapping pages from Beowulf manuscript, one with a large rubric, on a maroon ground (Default)

From: [personal profile] ellen_fremedon

I thought I was the only person who had read that! The book as a whole didn't hang together that well but some of the setpieces have stayed with me for years--Terminator, and the musical automaton, and the scene on Icarus.
luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)

From: [personal profile] luzula

Yup, that is Kim Stanley Robinson (whose books I like a lot). Terminator is on Mercury, and it features most in 2312</>
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

I think this might be an older re-issue, because I remember a book that I always thought was from the 70s or 80s (read looooong ago during my early teenage encounters with new-wave sci-fi) that had this exact setup. I always thought it was by Niven or someone in his general cadre of writers and I'm not sure if Duncan's been around that long, but either there are two books with this premise -- not at all unreasonable -- or this one has been out for awhile.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio

Somewhat tangentially (but still relevant) I was rereading the second Steerswoman book today and it reminded me how much I still love this kind of book, the kind that's about exploring and discovering a world where the reader learns about the world along with the characters, as they wander through it. I will never get over how much fun it is to just wander around a sci-fi or fantasy world along with the characters, playing tourist.

(Preferably without orgies.)
Edited Date: 2017-01-15 11:10 am (UTC)
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional

Well I'm p sure the all-women-flinging-self-at-him is, if it is a sendup, a sendup of the Ringworld books where sex between homonid species is frequently part of basic diplomacy, so the protagonist has a lot of it.
movingfinger: (Default)

From: [personal profile] movingfinger

Knobil goes somewhere, and every woman in sight flings herself on him. I think Duncan was consciously imitating a classic picaresque form where this sort of thing happens

1. I would SO not name a protagonist "Knob." I just couldn't do it. Props to you, Dave Duncan!

2. This description reminds me of Clan of the Cave Bear et seq. Strangely, though I have read many picaresque novels, I read that so long before I knew what a picaresque novel is, and I never associated it with the genre. Hmmm.

ETA: It's from 1990. Duncan is one of the great midlist writers, possibly rather under-recognized in the genre.
Edited Date: 2017-01-14 09:17 pm (UTC)
snarp: small cute androgynous android crossing arms and looking very serious (Default)

From: [personal profile] snarp

This sounds like fanfic of the early chapters of Ringworld Engineers, where a bunch of weird little super-segregated societies are slowly migrating away from the encroaching unstoppable Evil Sunflowers. Despite the fact that all these societies have genetically diverged from one another to such an extent that they are now different species, all but one shares the common tradition of having an orgy when an outsider shows up.
naye: a photo of old books (books)

From: [personal profile] naye

Man. Dave Duncan. There's a name I haven't heard in a while! I think I read all of A Man of His Word, back in the day. And also some if not all of The Reluctant Swordsman. As I have absolutely no memory of anything except for the little poetry snippets the titles are derived from, I'm curious to go check out the reviews. Younger self, what were you reading?

Especially since before this post, I could have sworn that West of January was a short story by someone else entirely, but with the same general premise?

But now I'm starting to suspect that I actually read Duncan's version. Which, reading your review, is a bit weird to think about because I would've been in my early teens? But while the world-building has stuck (unless I found it elsewhere), none of the, uh... romantic escapades? remain. Which is probably for the best!
ceitfianna: (pooka illustration)

From: [personal profile] ceitfianna

I love his King's Swords book and he's one of those authors I keep meaning to read more of. Thank you for some direction in that.
cloudsinvenice: woman resting her head on her hand, thinking (Default)

From: [personal profile] cloudsinvenice

The unexplored implications of the premise remind me a bit of what's going on with the seasons in ASOIAF - I'm caught up with all the published novels and I still don't understand how it all actually works re: either planetary rotation (how could it vary enough to create seasons of completely unpredictable lengths? what would even cause that?) or how it affects food supply. They refer to having (or hoping for) more than one harvest during the autumn depicted in the series, which offers a hint, but how do they compensate for the phenomenon of a short summer followed by an incredibly long winter? Are the biological processes of plants remotely the same as in our world? And if not, how is human (and other mammalian) life otherwise apparently identical to ours?
cloudsinvenice: woman resting her head on her hand, thinking (Default)

From: [personal profile] cloudsinvenice

I'm starting to really notice different layers of intended realism in fantasy novels, and to be interested in the choices authors make, and why. When I first read The Dark is Rising (just the novel), Will's lack of agency and the lack of psychological realism bothered me - it felt like stuff just happened to him and we didn't get a strong sense of how he would change as a person due to these experiences. Now I'm reading the whole series for the first time, and my sense of it is that it's meant to be understood on a mythic, archetypal level; we're not meant to even expect great psychological depth. I appreciate the books more as a result.

I think that what goes wrong with ASOIAF is that, unlike TDIR, where everything in the books falls into line with this mythic sense of events, GRRM combines a very earthy, everyday approach to some stuff (I enjoy that this includes injuries and disability; also armed combat) with a mythic approach to other things. Sometimes this works, because even when the subjects are things like magic and dragons which are impossible in our world, there are hints that we could give them scientific explanations if we just had enough info - the Maesters in the Citadel sound as though they approach things in this way, and the facts we're told about the dragons make them clearly biological beings rather than supernatural entities. We can assume there are reasons that they died out - perhaps hereditary problems were emphasised by selective breeding.

But as you point out, the seasonal phenomena doesn't carry the implications of a worked-out system, or, strangely, have the cultural impact you'd expect. There's a lot of linguistic traces ("You sweet summer child!"), because GRRM seems to enjoy playing with names and words and inventing colloquialisms, but planetary mechanics don't seem to have ever been on his agenda, and I think that makes more sense when you think of the winter/summer thing (and spring and autumn really don't figure much, so far) as having been conceived to have mythic weight ("Winter is Coming"), and a mythic resonance with the powers of the Others vs. the dragons. But yes, I want the poetry! I want to know what people like me, who love autumn, feel about its apparent brevity! I want to know how all this plays into industry and manufacturing - one of the few hints we get is that the winters in the north have led previous generations at Winterfell to develop central heating...
sovay: (Rotwang)

From: [personal profile] sovay

So people can be born in the grasslands of Tuesday, north of September, and be three months old when they die of old age.

That is a great sentence to be able to write.

From: [identity profile]

Completely randomly, I wrote an entire original novel because I loved the concept of his King's Blades series but wished he'd actually gone into more of the ethics/complications/consent issues/fantastic romantic tension potential of having guards be soul-bonded to their employers. I enjoy Dave Duncan's concepts a lot, but not always his execution.

From: [identity profile]

Yeah, that was one where I agree, the concept was SUPER cool but didn't get explored in the depth he usually does.

What did you do with your novel?

From: [identity profile]

lol WELL in very Me fashion I wrote it, had a vague idea of things I wanted to change in the edit, sent it to some friends who offered to beta, never heard back from any of them, and then moved on to write another one and repeat the process. Recently I considered going back and changing all the characters to women in the next draft, just because, but it's still sitting on my hard drive.

(I've never understood people who say they hate writing but love editing/rewriting. THE WORST.)

From: [identity profile]

I don't hate writing but usually I find editing easier/more fun. ;)

Re: your book: were you thinking of publishing it (trad or self-pub) or just putting it online? It sounds cool.

From: [identity profile]

Oh my gosh, TEACH ME YOUR WAYS. Though, tbh, I think like 90% of it is that I'm a professional editor, so editing my own stuff is basically a) doing work that b) I don't get paid for. (Which is silly, I'm pretty sure plumbers don't gripe about the ability to fix their own sinks, BUT WHATEVER)

I.... want to publish things! I have many drawn-out fantasies about publishing things! I just never get past the first draft stage. Possibly I psych myself out?? How do you actually get to the rewriting so that it's fun?

(The first draft of The Oath-Takers is actually online already, for LJ friends just because I like to do that, but I'm still considering swapping out all the dudes for ladies. POSSIBLY. I DUNNO, I'd need to think about the implications)

From: [identity profile]

Email me. Seriously, I really like doing this and I've helped quite a few people start or get to the next stage of their writing career, from getting past some sort of writer's block to getting published.

And awesome, thank you! I may hit you up for a word version (which I assume you have) at some point so I can convert it and stick it on my Kindle.

From: [identity profile]


I have sent an email, and I would totally welcome any and all help. The only thing I've done professionally was send out a story that got very seriously considered by Asimov's but was rejected in the end, ha.

From: [identity profile]

I agree, this is not one of his stronger books. Of his early single-volume novels I prefer Hero! and Strings. A Rose-Red City has more issues (it's his first book, I think) but is still fun.

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