by S. M. Stirling
Baen, pb, 399 pages, $5.99
ISBN: 0-671-87711-9

This book has a really cool villain. You know she's the potential scourge of humanity, planning on ruling the planet and annihilating most of its inhabitants. You know she's a ruthless killer from another dimension, capable of quickly slicing apart a warehouseful of heavily armed drug dealers that she's accidentally gotten herself transported into, as well as plenty of other people who happen to cross her path, but she's just...so cool, so much more alive than the agent from her own universe sent to hunt her down. The human heroes of Drakon are likeable, and you eventually have to root for them to win, but the villain is clearly the soul of the book.

Gwendolyn is a four-hundred-something from an alternate earth, a member of a race genetically engineered to rule over a society of tame post-humans (Homo servus) and other specialized races. Her society has eliminated disease, poverty, and overpopulation, all following the last great war at the end of the twentieth century (the society diverged from earth in the 1770s). Survivors of the losers in that great war continue to carry on a long distance war from Alpha Centauri, although space travel is slow enough that the war is mostly conducted through skirmishes and espionage. A technology breakthrough holds the potential for ending the stalemate, but while pursuing the new scientific advance, Gwen is suddenly catapulted into 1990s New York City.

Our villain is nothing if not adaptable, though. After dealing with the drug dealers, she quickly goes to ground--at the cost of a couple more lives--and begins learning about the society she has been trapped in (while police and forensics experts are trying to cope with the advent of a mass murderer who is genetically inhuman). Using her genetically ingrained ability to manipulate and influence people, as well as her knowledge of technology hundreds of years advanced from our own, Gwendolyn begins to build an organization capable of generating the capital she needs to build a device capable of signaling her own world, and bringing in the resources needed to most efficiently conquer earth. Meanwhile, the law enforcement personnel assigned by various agencies to track her down are stymied by red tape, bureaucracy, corruption, and governments more worried about gaining access to her secrets than dealing with the threat she represents.

The humans fighting Gwen eventually are assisted by an agent sent from the Alpha Centauri enemies of her people, who doesn't really care how many human deaths it takes to bring Gwen to ground. One of the nice ironies in the book is the lack of vibrance in this character and his society, compared with Gwen's hyperawareness, sensuality and voracious appetites (physically and emotionally). Until the endgame there isn't really much of a sense of danger in the book, though--despite all the killings. By the book's final chapters, the pace has picked up considerably, and the author attempts to make Gwen seem more monstrous. She's still cool, though. The ending (which never seems in doubt) turns out to be nicely mixed, with the heroes defeating the evils that they know about....Nicely, Stirling has created a character that is smarter than the humans without dumbing down the humans to achieve the affect.

As with the review of Animals, I have a bit of a weak spot for hyper-sensual, kinetic characters whose role in the protagonists' lives may be ambivalent. For that matter, I like to write them, too.

First appeared in Absolute Magnitude, 1996.

Copyright © 1996 by Leigh Grossman