Sunday 27 August 2017

Book review: The Salarian Desert Game by J. A. McLachlan

After enjoying The Occasional Diamond Thief tremendously, I bought its sequel, The Salarian Desert Game, right away. It's a sequel that probably works on its own, as Kia Ugiagbe, our heroine, goes on another adventure on another planet. The events of the first book are occasionally referenced, but not crucial to understanding this book.

Kia is an unusually gifted student translator. She doesn't know quite as many languages as her fellow students, but those she does learn, she learns to the point of speaking them like a native. She comes from a family of space traders / cargo ship operators, but since both her parents are now dead, it's her older brother and sister running the business. Business is not going well at all...

As we meet Kia at the start of the novel, she's determined to rescue her sister from the faraway planet of Salaria. To save the floundering company, her sister has entered a gambling establishment and lost her freedom - she's now on Salaria slaving away in the mines and likely to perish there before her indentured servitude is up.

Kia knows her quest is dangerous and completely unachievable. Salarians never release someone from a (gambling) debt, ever. She has no plan, no money, and intends to embark her journey to Salaria with no real preparation, when she is summonsed by her sponsors. Her university fees are paid by a religious organisation, and she can't refuse the summons. It turns out, her sponsors need her to travel to Salaria in her capacity as a translator....

The Salarian Desert Game is just as wonderful to read as the first novel. Pacey, tongue  in cheek, fun, and filled with adventure and peril. It is more hard-hitting than the first book, and it tackles some more challenging moral dilemmas. Don't get me wrong: this is not a preachy novel. It's a fun adventure novel which is designed to make readers think (from time to time). Kia is a great protagonist because she has a sense of humour, a sarcastic / rebellious streak, and because she isn't a goody-two-shoes hero. She does the right thing more often than not, but not without grumbling. When there is no right and wrong, she is just as beset by difficulties with making decisions as the reader would be. Easy to identify with and plucky - a great character to spend literary time with.

The novel is not flawlesss: I find the way J.A. McLachlan handles exposition annoying. Namely, there often is none. Instead, one of the most dramatic events of the story (Kia's sister's gambling and everything that happens before and after, at t he gambling den), is entirely off-screen. Tiny snippets of relevant information are simply just introduced when they become relevant, often in dialogue, so at times it feels almost as if the author is just making these things up on the spot. We may see the story through Kia's eyes, but Kia feels no need to share everything she knows with us readers... The way information is revealed was a source of frustration for this particular reader. Similarly, scene changes and skips in time are often a bit too sudden. That said, these "flaws" (in quotemarks because they are a matter of taste, really) are at worst stylistic and cosmetic issues. The plot, the characters, Kia's narrative voice - they are all of stellar quality.

I'd happily recommend The Salarian Desert Game to any reader who has no prejudice against science fiction or YA novels - it's a great read. However, even though it stands well on its own feet, I would also recommend starting with the first novel, which is as good (perhaps even better).

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Review: The Occasional Diamond Thief by J.A. McLachlan

The \ Occasional / Diamond Thief is a YA adventure scifi novel.

Our heroine, Kia Ugiagbe, is the 15-year-old daughter of a fairly unsuccessful trader. Her father has been sickly as long as she can remember, suffering episodes of fever and weakness ever since he'd travelled to a faraway frontier planet, Malemese. He never talked about what happened there, but it has left its mark on him.

On his deathbed, Kia is the only one he can talk to any more, because she's the only one to have learnt the Malemese language. Malemese is the language he falls into when suffering fever hallucinations. In his final moments, he reveals a secret he has kept all those years: hidden at the back of a drawer, there is a little bag containing a huge diamond which could only have come from Malemese. Her father, she realises, must have stolen it.

Soon after his death, Kia gains independence from her abusive mother (and her aloof siblings) by means of stealing jewellery and using the proceeds to fund a place at a school for translators. However, her brief career in thieving is just the start of her adventures...

Fast paced, fun, and tense, The Occasional Diamond Thief is a brilliantly absorbing novel. Kia is easy to root for: she's hard-working, not brilliant at everything she does (especially her people skills are a subject she struggles with), but dedicated to her work. At times, she reminded me of Pat Rothfuss's Kvothe: all her skills are hard-earned, but unlike Kvothe, she isn't magically gifted at everything. She has a sense of humour and just the right amount of cheek: enough to put a twinkle in the reader's eye, not so much that she becomes annoying. She stumbles into her adventures, and though some are forced upon her, the story never loses the main thread of Kia's desire to understand more about her father, and the man he was before the sickness that would ultimately destroy him.

It's not a flawless novel - the mother is a bit too simplistically drawn as a character, and some of the scene changes are disorienting - but it's one of the best YA novels I've read. Better by far than Hunger Games, and on a par with Ian McDonald's Planesrunner series.

Highly recommended!

Rating: 5/5