Sunday, January 27, 2019

Birthday Review: Black on Black, by K. D. Wentworth

Birthday Review: Black on Black, by K. D. Wentworth

Today would have been Kathy Wentworth's 68th birthday, but, alas, a promising career was cut short by illness in 2012. Kathy was one of the first authors I remember meeting, at ConQuesT in Kansas City some time in the late '90s, and we also interacted in One of the things it seems reviews of this sort can do is bring back to mind writers who may be forgotten for terribly unfair reasons.

I was really impressed by a number of her short stories, including "Exit Strategy", "Born-Again", and "The Orangery". I didn't read much of her work at novel length, but I did read her first novel for Baen, under the circumstances I describe below, in a brief review I did on my SFF Net newsgroup.


(Cover by Patrick Turner)
I received a postcard from someone in Oklahoma, presumably K. D. Wentworth herself, consisting of a cover flat for her Baen novel Black on Black. I admit it had been on my mind as a book I might like to try, but I hadn't got around to buying it.  Next time I was in a bookstore, the book just happened to leap out at me (crazy things, books), so I bought it.  I guess that means the postcard was a successful promotional tool.  I will say however that the cover rather misrepresents the nature of the book.  It focuses on the title character/protagonist's partner, who is actually a middling minor character.  However, she's a woman, and as drawn by Baen's selected artist, she's showing plenty of cleavage.  Sigh.

The book is really about Heyoka Blackeagle, a lion- or cat-like alien called a hrinn.  (Half of Heyoka's head shows up on the cover.)  Heyoka was rescued from the flek slave markets by an Indian (Oglala Sioux, I think) named Ben Blackeagle when he was very young.  Hence his name.  He was raised basically as a human, though he always knew he didn't fully fit.  When Ben died he joined the army, which is engaged in a long war against the flek, who like to "flekform" (my word) planets so that native life (including humans, if any) is wholly destroyed.  After an injury, Heyoka may be on the point of being invalided out, so he takes leave with his friend and partner, Mitsu, at the small human outpost on Anktan, his home planet.  He hopes to meet the primitive Hrinn who live there and discover something about this history. However, he finds both unusual resistance from the outpost director (named Eldrich (!)), and hostility from those hrinn he meets.  One hrinn male, however, recognizes him as having the legendary "Black/on/Black" coloring, which may mean he has special powers.  Soon Heyoka finds himself entangled in hrinn politics, which is more complicated than he may have expected, and, worse, he finds that Mitsu has gotten herself captured by a hrinn clan while trying to help him.

Soon the reader realizes that much more is going on: there is a mystery surrounding Heyoka's birth clan, which was destroyed about the time Heyoka ended up in the slave market; and there are behind the scenes manipulations both among the female hrinn and the males (females and males live apart); and in general something very odd is going on.  Mixed in is his growing realization that he does have unusual abilities ...  It's a fun book, full of adventure, and with a pretty neat and complicated plot.  It does sort of unravel too quickly and conveniently at the end.  And as usual, the hero turns out to have pretty much the powers he needs to save the world.  Though to be fair, these powers aren't as overwhelming as they might have been, and on many occasions Wentworth shows real limits to Heyoka's ability. I liked the book.

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