The January Dancer is a very good space opera… I wish it had tipped over into great. There is a lot going on here to love: a sufficiently deep future history created through the liberal use of allusion that references any number of existing earth cultures (heavily relying on Celtic and cultures from the Indian subcontinent) along with some pretty swell creations of Flynn’s own (the Hounds, ‘those of Name’, the Terran Corners, the Rift, the People of Sand & Iron, etc.) in which the diaspora of humanity has settled across the cosmos, making use of an intriguingly pseudo-scientific explanation for FTL travel; a cast of varied and interesting characters of disparate parts coming together, as though by chance, to solve the mystery of a powerful pre-human artifact; and perhaps most of all the well-crafted prose of Michael Flynn that provides a certain shine to what might have been little more than a bloated pulp epic in weaker hands.
And yet I just didn’t find myself utterly captivated by the story as I hoped I might. Somehow it felt as though I was being held at arm’s length from the narrative and I was unable to fully immerse myself into this world as I have done in Herbert’s Dune, Zindell’s Neverness, or Simmons’ Hyperion. Perhaps it was Flynn’s use of a dual narrative structure in which the main story was a tale being told by a character in another narrating arc, but I don’t think that’s it: I am not averse to the technique (indeed it’s not unlike that used by Simmons’ in Hyperion) and I don’t think Flynn did a bad job in making it work.
Perhaps the story was too much of an obvious set-up for the required sequels. There was a lot happening, but so much of it was seemingly to get the board into a state of readiness for the game to really proceed that it might have made the story of this volume itself seem weak, unable to support its own weight. Whatever the case may be, I did quite like the story Flynn had to tell, but I just wanted to love it more.
We follow the wanderings of a group of characters as they in turn follow the peregrinations of an alien artifact able to change its shape imperceptibly (and may have other, less benign powers) that was discovered by the tramp freighter captain Amos January (hence its name, The January Dancer) as it moves from hand to hand across large swathes of known human space. As various players from different factions come across the Dancer (or rumours of it) a race to attain the hidden power of the alien artifact begins. We are given a tour of many of the main worlds that make up the loose conglomeration of planets known as the United League of the Periphery (under the nominal control of the Ardry of High Tara and his specially trained police force, the Hounds) whose great enemy, the Confederation of Central Worlds (in which is held the lost home-world of Old Earth), lies watching and waiting across the great galactic rift.
The main characters (and even many of the secondary ones) are fairly well-fleshed out and have interesting motivations, the prose is very good, and the story moves along at a decent clip. Somehow though I just didn’t fall completely under the story’s spell. I have to admit, though, that the final reveal about the Dancer was pretty freakin’ awesome and well worth the lead-up. All-in-all a worthy read.