Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Owl Dance - David Lee Summers

    2011; 270 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Western; Steampunk.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    What’s gotten into some people in the sleepy town of Socorro?  Well actually, it’s an artificial “intelligence” composed of thousands of tiny “nanites” that have been traversing the galaxy and studying sentient beings.  Its collective name is Legion and it likes to take up residence in a host’s mind from whence it can observe the subject’s mental processes, supply information (think Google glasses), and make persuasive suggestions to the subject as to the best course of action to take.

    Legion finds us fascinating, but can’t help but meddle in human affairs in order increase the odds that we’ll survive as a species.  Alas, the best laid plans of mice and nanites go oft awry.

What’s To Like...
    The Amazon blurb calls Owl Dance a Weird Western Steampunk novel, and I’m kewl with that.  It takes a bit – 20% or so - for the Steampunk phase to kick in, but it’s worth the wait.  The setting – 1870’s in the American Southwest (primarily in the New Mexico Territory)  – is a pleasant change of pace.  David Lee Summers renders all the American locations in a believable fashion, while avoiding excessive minutiae that would distract from the story.
    There are two main protagonists – one Hispanic (Ramon); the other Persian (Fatemeh) and it’s nice to have non-Eurocentric heroes.  The supporting cast has a bunch of interesting secondary people to meet, among them Professor Maravilla, General Gorloff, Billy McCarty, and last but not least, the Russian chemist Mendeleev.  To boot, Newhall, California gets some ink, which is one of my old hometowns, and yes, it really does have an old refinery right at the edge of town.

    I liked the clever twist on the Biblical ‘Legion’.  There is some violence (soldiers getting blown up by bombs), a single cuss word, and a romance leading to adult situations.  But none of this is enough to not call it a YA novel.  

Kewlest New Word. . .
Curandera  (n.)   :  a healer who uses folk remedies.  (Spanish)

    Ramon looked up and saw Fatemeh as she stepped from the rock enclosure.  She wore a clean, modest black dress, but it clung to her skin because of the moisture.  Her feminine curves were very apparent.  Ramon watched, mesmerized as she stepped over and sat down next to him.
    “You should close your mouth,” she said.  “There are mosquitoes.”  (loc. 610)

    “It is a country of cowboys and loose cannons who have no respect for intellectual pursuits.  The country has been around for a century and I cannot name one decent university or important literary work that has come from there.”
    “I have heard some critics speak highly of a novel called Moby Dick,” ventured the general.
    The scientist waved his hand as though subjected to a bad smell.  “A long-winded book about a madman hunting a whale?  It has no value.  Poe showed some promise, but he was obviously influenced by the French.”  (loc. 2648)

Kindle Details...
    The Kindle version of Owl Dance is no longer offered at Amazon.  The paperback version is available for $10.41.  David Lee Summers has another dozen or so books available at Amazon, in assorted genres.  Most (but not all) are available for the Kindle, and range in price from free to $4.99.  Some of these are short stories; some are full-length novels.

“Good citizens maintain the status quo.  It’s the outlaws and the dreamers who change the world.”  (loc. 5735)
    There are weaknesses.  The storytelling is disjointed, and I felt like the author started each new chapter with no idea where he was going to take it.  The inherent result is a lot of stuff – characters, scenes, side plots, etc. – that is just unnecessary.  Some examples – the pirates, the submarine, the occasional Baha’i preachiness, and even the titular owls.  Do any of these contribute to the main storyline – the Russian invasion?  Ditto for a slew of characters that trot into the story, get named and developed, then exit never to be heard from again.

    There are also some WTF’s.  Apparently the whole invasion force, plus food and supplies, plus bombs and ammunition; can be brought across from western Russia on just two dirigibles.  Wow.  There’s also Fatemeh’s fabulous powers of persuasion – convincing outlaws, pirates, and bounty hunters to instantly change sides.

    The climax - the demise of the airships - is . . .well. . . anticlimactic.  I was expecting an exciting fight scene, with the proviso that firearms could not be used (the airship will go boom); instead there was a bad case of rigor mortis.  Loose ends remain.  Bishop Ramirez & Randolph Dalton are swept aside with a “they better not try anything”; the problem of Legion isn’t even addressed; and the Russian ground troops are still out there.  Lastly, the pirates who just saved the USA are to be deported?  Wow again.

    This is another one of those “it cooda been so much better” books that cries out for a serious rewrite.  For instance, have our heroes win the airships on their own resources, maybe work an owl playing a crucial role.  Legion needs to be defeated, or at least neutralized.  Switch the final battle site to the West Coast; that’s the land the Russians were trying to reclaim in the first place.  Scrap the Baha’i blurbs, they don’t contribute anything.  Dump Dalton/Ramirez and the Pirates/Submarine too; neither thread is needed.  Better yet, save them for a sequel.

    For all that, the Owl Dance still held my interest.  I think David Lee Summers' writing style is strong enough to overcome the storytelling issues.  But just barely.

    6 Stars.  Add ½-star if you happen to be Baha’i.  Subtract ½-star if you happen to be Catholic.

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