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.
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.
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?
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]

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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