You might have a hard time swallowing much of Navohar, the debut of Denver author Hilari Bell. But Bell produces easygoing, accessible writing that gives her book a degree of light-reading appeal. If only the whole affair weren’t so pat and predictable.
Navohar is set towards the end of this century, after the people of Earth have thwarted an invasion by ruthless slave-trading aliens by knocking them out H.G. Wells-style with a horrid genetically-engineered virus. Tragically, this backfires, infecting human DNA as well and causing nearly an entire generation of kids to grow up with an incurably fatal genetic condition.
The people of Earth now live a fearful existence beneath domes, while a stalwart few venture out into the cosmos in an attempt to reconnect with the few human colonies that escaped the planet before the plague struck. The hope is that perhaps a cure for the plague can be found within the DNA of people who were never exposed to it. But wouldn’t you know it: as each of the colonies is contacted, it’s found that most of them have perished too, waylaid by one form of alien disease or another against which they have no immunity. This is not a book to read if you’re looking for something to cheer you up through a bad case of allergies or the flu.
Irene Olsen and her terminally ill but high-spirited teen nephew Mark are part of a crew who land upon the colonized world of Navohar. At first, it seems as if these colonists have met doom as well. But we soon learn they they’re alive and well, though they’ve been forced into a nomadic existence in order to avoid these ape-beings who have an annoying habit of jumping out of the woods and beating people to death. (In Bell’s future, you’re given the impression people colonize worlds with a lackadaisical “That one looks nice!” attitude, without exactly vetting the local flora and fauna.) When Mark is spirited away in secret by the colonists one night, an enraged Irene is allowed to rush off alone into the uncharted wilderness after him, while everyone else searches from the air. Naturally, at the moment Irene is near death, she is rescued by one of the six-legged camels that travel with the colonists, and she ends up in their camp, only to discover that Mark seems to be in a vastly improved state of health.
Irene quickly finds Mark, and learns the colonists may very well have the miracle cure Earth is looking for. They’re afraid, understandably, of the likelihood of millions of people descending upon Nahovar demanding it. They allow Irene to keep studying it, on the off chance she might find a way to synthesize it, but refuse to offer her any help.
Bell regrettably gives in to many first-timer’s typical poor choices. Her characters’ dialogue is often cloyingly cute, as are they, for that matter (Irene’s nickname is “Goodnight,” fer pete’s sake). And Irene, for the most part, is infuriating. It’s not just that she’s prone to rash, emotional snap decisions even when everyone else is warning her against them — characters who don’t listen and run pell mell into disaster tend to get little sympathy from me — but it’s obvious that Bell’s plot machinations hinge entirely on Irene’s nonstop irrationality. If Irene used her head a little bit better things would all go so much easier for everyone. But the only way Bell can eke an interesting story out of the proceedings is to have Irene be infuriatingly obtuse pretty much all the time. As a result, the seams on Bell’s story aren’t all that show — the nuts, bolts, and rivets do, too, particularly when Irene is forgiven way too quickly for one catastrophic act of foolishness near the book’s end.
Bell also plays out patently obvious plot points as if they were Big Surprises (the camels are intelligent!? well duh!), and sets up characters into hero, villain, and love-interest roles as if working her way down a checklist.
On the plus side, the story moves briskly and Bell’s writing, as I mentioned above, is amiable. Sadly, Navohar ends up being one of those books that you like less and less the more you think about it. So perhaps I’ll just stop here, so that when Bell’s next novel is released (she has gone on to be a successful purveyor of young-adult fantasy), I won’t go into it with too many negative preconceptions. As it stands, Navohar‘s most convincing bit of speculation was Bell’s assurance that, in the final years of the 21st century, people will still be watching Star Trek.
This review by Thomas M. Wagner is reprinted from his website SFReviews.net by special arrangement.
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