Though sporting a truly interesting premise, and offering up its fair share of exciting interstellar pursuits and battles, Julie Czerneda's sophomore novel is hampered by labored prose and an overplotted storyline that tries to cover too much ground. Beholder's Eye introduces us to Esen-alit-Quar, an alien being who is one of only five belonging to a collective lifeform called the Web. When united, these five apparently immortal entities share their gathered knowledge of the universe in an all-encompassing quest to study and catalogue sentient races throughout space, preserving their cultures. When separate, these aliens have the ability to change their shape to conform to any lifeform which they have catalogued. It's a helpful attribute, as the Web's most important self-imposed guideline is never to reveal their true forms to the aliens they are studying, many of whom have not yet advanced technologically to the point of space travel and thus either assume themselves to be alone in the universe or are simply not equipped to deal with encountering otherworldly life.
Esen, as the "youngest" member of the Web, is dispatched to the planet Kraos for his (her? its?) first assignment. After a couple of centuries apparently learning how to control the shape shifting, he ends up saving a human space crew from Kraosian treachery. Esen is forced to reveal his shape changing abilities to the human Paul Ragem, but luckily manages, for a while at least, to keep Ragem from anything specific about the Web (mostly out of fear of punishment from Ersh, its leader).
It appears that some sort of destructive sentient force — which Czerneda refers to fairly bluntly as Death — is pursuing the Web throughout space, incidentally eliminating any life it encounters along the way. Numerous reports of derelict spaceships and stations have the inhabited worlds in an uproar. Esen, having taken on yet another form, finds himself back on Ragem's ship in his hunt to discover what this killer is and why it is bent on destroying everything. Ersh has hinted at terrible secrets regarding the Web's distant past, that could mean this creature is hunting the Web in retribution for an ancient wrong. Out of necessity, Esen is forced to violate the Web's ultimate taboo and reveal all about himself and the Web to Ragem. The rest of the novel is thus spent having Esen and Ragem seek out Esen's fellow Web beings, in a desperate attempt to destroy this evil predator before it's too late.
This is a tremendously ambitious story, and its principal flaw is that its reach exceeds its grasp. The book feels like it's been crammed with two or three novels' worth of plot. In its early pages, Czerneda fumbles for a suitable prose style, and the book is fairly difficult to get into. Czerneda then makes some unwise storytelling choices. Esen, who narrates the novel in first-person, is too heavily anthropomorphized, too human, despite the fact this character is about as non-human as they come. Czerneda has Esen being glib and cracking wise like Jerry Seinfeld through scenes that should be either suspenseful, atmospheric, or downright alien. As a result, the novel lacks sufficient dramatic tension when it should be generating a palpable sense of impending doom regarding this being called Death. At no time does the story really make your pulse race.
After the first 150 pages, the novel improves markedly, with several engrossing scenes and a moving bond of friendship developing between Esen and Ragem (this is the most rewarding element). But the story still isn't as tight as it ought to be, jumping from sequence to sequence and throwing out interesting ideas without marrying them successfully to a smooth narrative flow. Czerneda needs more discipline as a novelist at this early stage of her career. She clearly wants to write galaxy-spanning sagas like C.J. Cherryh (Beholder's Eye wears its Cherryh influence on its sleeve), and the thing is I think she has the right stuff to do it. But I also think she needs more time to develop her talents and really make them work for her. Here it's all too choppy.
But...but but but...there are things to like in Beholder's Eye, and a solid indication that Czerneda has what it takes to work the kinks out and join the big leagues in a very short time. And it's true that readers in either the Cherryh or Bujold camps will probably enjoy this novel far more than most readers (it definitely isn't for every taste). As the saying goes, beauty is you-know-where.