Thursday, 9 January 2014

‘The Queen of Air and Darkness’ – Poul Anderson

I know I was going on about not really having any reading resolutions for the New Year but one thing I do want to do is just be a little more widely read with some of those authors where I’ve only read the one book. Authors like Poul Anderson for instance; I’ve only ever read ‘The Broken Sword’ (and I’ll be revisiting that for my Fantasy Masterworks reading sometime in the near future) so figured it was time I branched out a little :o) won the Hugo Award for Best Novella and the Locus Award for Best Short Story in 1972, and the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in 1971. This leads me to ask the question, ‘when is a novella not a novella…?’ When different awards committees apparently can’t decide what the difference is between a novella, short story and novelette… My copy of the story weighs in at a painfully slender fifty(ish) pages so, erm… novelette? I literally have no idea.

All that is beside the point though. ‘The Queen of Air and Darkness’ was a read that just about got me to work this morning. It clearly won a load of awards but maybe wasn’t quite as effective as I hoped it would be. It was still a good read though, even though I felt compelled to put my hand over the picture of the bare breasted alien lady on the front cover; apparently being on the train to work brings out the prude in me.
So then, have a little blurb to get you going…

On the frontier colony world, Roland, a distraught mother hires the only private investigator, Eric Sherrinford, to find her missing son who vanished during an expedition in the hinterlands. The local police are little help in spite of the long series of unexplained child disappearances. Though there have been no confirmed sightings of intelligent native life, and the rumors sound suspiciously like Celtic superstitions from old Earth, Sherrinford believes that an unknown intelligent species is the best explanation of the child's disappearance. So he sets off with the mother into the hinterland to investigate.

For me, ‘The Queen of Air and Darkness’ was three sub-plots trying their level best to wrestle for equal footing. There’s the story of the missing child, of course, but there is also exploration of the loneliness of space (and how colonists might bring myths and legends with them to a new world) and exploration of how an alien race might subtly fight back against the human encroachers. These are all worthy themes to be explored and Anderson really puts a lot of thought into the theories he gives us. The ‘missing child’ sub-plot is slightly lighter in that respect (and it would be) but Anderson instils enough urgency in the plot for this not to be an issue. Having said that though, Anderson places a little too much emphasis on Sherrinford’s theories, about Roland’s native people, and the story as a whole comes across a little drier than perhaps it could have been. Another problem arising from this is that there isn’t the sense of closure that I got the feeling this tale was aiming for. Too many of the big questions are left unanswered which is cool in the way that it keeps you thinking, afterwards, but not so cool if you’re after a tale with a very definite ending.

All in all, I’m glad I gave ‘Queen of Air and Darkness’ a go, especially in terms of how Anderson really brings to light the sense of ‘humanity against the utterly alien’ on a colony world light years from home. Just a shame that it was more about ideas and theories than things actually happening. I’d definitely give more of his sci-fi work a shot if this is anything to go by though, any recommendations?

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