Lost in Translation

by Margaret Ball
Baen, pb, 279 pages, $5.99
ISBN: 0-671-87688-0

Why is it that every SF book with college students as protagonists seems to hurl them into another dimension? This isn't a complaint about Margaret Ball's largely pleasant novel, just a feeling that this particular subgenre has been left a bit underdeveloped over the years. More than most writers who attempt to work with college-age protagonists, Ball has a feel for the quirky realities of college life, without the added glamour that hindsight usually confers.

Allie is a rich kid running through her dad's money in the vicinity of (as opposed to actively attending the classes shes's been enrolled in) a California college when her father finally decides that enough is enough: He's willing to bankroll his daughter's education, but not her aimless Gen-X-lite lifestyle. He packs her on a plane to France where he has--by means of a generous endowment--managed to get her admitted in mid-semester. Through a not-entirely-plausible-but-nevertheless-crucial-to-the-plot device, she is instead transported to The College of Magical Arts and Sciences at Coindra, where the Dean plots to sacrifice her to enhance his own powers. College life being what it is, Allie does not perceive anything unusual in this arrangement, and only gradually realizes that she is not where she is supposed to be.

The rest of the plot follows along predictable lines. To nobody's real surprise, evil is eventually foiled, and Allie must choose between earth and her new homeland. Ball is most effective, and her characters ring truest, when she focuses on college life, the concerns and unconcerns of college students, and the political machinations of university figures. Much of the later part of the book wanders away from the University and meanders around the countryside, which is more generic and less interesting than the college town. The story is at its best when focused on Allie's attempts to reconcile her new world with her college student's not-entirely-accurately formed impressions of life in America.

This was one of those fun books that really needed to be a couple of hundred pages longer. Now that we're in the age of the doorstop-sized fantasy novel, that's become an uncommon complaint, but overly short fantasy novels used to be a common criticism.

First appeared in Horror magazine, April 1994.

Copyright © 2004 by Leigh Grossman