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A THOUSAND WORDS FOR STRANGER
1997

Book cover art by Luis Royo.
Review © 2001 by Thomas M. Wagner.
AUTHOR'S SITE

Canadian Julie Czerneda's debut is a most promising piece of work, a richly detailed and textured novel set against a gritty and unromantic interstellar backdrop governed by the Trade Pact, a union of worlds that are home to the usual menagerie of humans and exotic aliens.

Sira is a young woman who belongs to the Clan, a telepathic race who are not formally part of the Trade Pact but who do operate freely within Trade Pact space. Suffering from a deliberate blocking of her memory, she is unsure of her own origins, and knows only that she is on the run, pursued by both members of her own kind and a ruthless Trade Pact Enforcer for reasons she cannot begin to fathom. Escaping from a vicious pirate and slaver, she finds herself in the sympathetic care of a space merchant named Morgan, to whom she feels inexplicably drawn. Could they share some sort of telepathic link...and could there be more to it than that, even? As bits of her memory return to her, Sira comes to realize she is part of a much larger drama between the Clan, the Pact, and, well, practically everybody. Only by tracing her origins, finding out who blocked her memory and why, will the mystery be solved.

At heart a good old fashioned space opera in the Cherryh vein, Czerneda's story succeeds because, though it seems awfully dense at times, her plot is fundamentally quite simple. And for a debut writer she already shows great confidence and skill in realizing her future, employing plenty of familiar space opera tropes but owning them in such a way that they avoid cliché. (With the possible exception of certain settings, like Plexis, an interstellar shopping mall that has a very Lucasfilms elan.) From the opening chapters on the rain-soaked world of Auord (indeed, for the best effect, try starting this novel on a really rainy day), to the vivid evocation of the bustling "shipcities" where countless traders gather to do their business, to the unraveling of nefarious plots and political intrigues, Czerneda provides swell escapism for readers who like their spaceships poorly-lit and grimy and their aliens scaly and hissably villianous. Roraqk, a reptilian — in both appearance and attitude — slaver is a particularly swell bad guy, and it's a shame Czerneda doesn't give us more of him.

If there are flaws to this story, they are of the kind typical to first-time novelists' efforts. Here and there the story gets a bit talkier than it ought to be. There are also times when Czerneda doesn't make it clear what the rules are pertaining to how telepathic powers work in her world, nor how the Clan's complex hierarchy actually functions. But the novel's old-fashioned gosh-wow unpretentiousness wins the day, bouyed by a sympathetic heroine and a supporting cast whose shadowy motives only add to the story's mystique. Sira and Morgan build a believable and heartfelt bond that anchors the tale, and shows that characterization stands to be one of Czerneda's principal strengths as her career progresses. Scenes of suspense and action are well-placed throughout the story. We don't get adrenalin overkill at the expense of good storytelling, a problem that plagues a lot of mid-list space opera. The book's pace, for the most part, feels just right. In the end, A Thousand Words for Stranger needs only one word to describe it: recommended.

Followed by Ties of Power.