First off: great
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