Monday, 22 April 2013

Sci-Fi Review: 'Caszandra' by Andrea K Höst

This is the third part of the Touchstone trilogy, and anyone who, like me, loved the first two, won’t have any problem enjoying this too. I’ve classified these as sci-fi (other planets, high-tech everywhere) but I’m getting less sure, since the technology is delightfully arm-wavy. All communication is via the ‘interface’, a brain-embedded universal internet which is incredibly useful at crucial moments. It can send/receive messages, provide all sorts of background information (aka instant info-dump) at the drop of a hat, and helpfully records everything so that the detail can be picked up later. There are ‘drones’ (robot things) which are deployed in a variety of plot-facilitating ways. Then there’s the literal world-building - when a new building is required, a bucket of special goop is ‘programmed’ with an architectural plan and away it goes. It beats scaffolding and uncouth building workers, anyway. Even the ‘ships’ used for inter-planetary travel are largely undescribed and unexplained. Then there are ‘psychics’ with all sorts of powers - elemental, levitation and teleportation, as well as actual psychic (mind-reading, sort of) abilities - all of which seems suspiciously fantasy. No quest, no secret heir to the kingdom, and definitely no magic swords, but there is a heroine with mysterious unexplained powers. There are monsters and at least one traditional fantasy beast, too.

Whatever you call it, the setup is much the same. Cass is still the stranger from Earth with the weird unexplained abilities which are so useful in unlocking the abandoned planet Muina, if they don’t get her killed her first. The inter-planetary politics and resettlement are taking centre stage now, but the psychic military, the Setari, are still back and forth on missions to fight monsters. And we finally have a Big Bad - the particularly creepy humanoid monsters who are both intelligent and organised. And hell-bent on destruction and mayhem, not to mention capturing Cass. So the race is on to find out what is going on, and a way to fight back.

The tension ramps up nicely to the grand confrontation, and much of the book has rather a heavy background tone. Cass and friends are doing various fluffy things (going shopping, eating out, socialising) while waiting for the Big Bad (the Cruzatch) to turn up again and kidnap Cass for various evil purposes, destroy the known world, kill all the nice friends and generally carry out their villainous plans. The good guys, meanwhile, are more or less floundering round trying to guess what awful thing might be coming up next, with no greater ambition than just - well, surviving. Their only plan seems to be - let’s blow stuff up and see if that helps. Or throw Cass at something to see what happens (which has been going on throughout, really).

This part of the book stretches the diary format to its absolute limits. It worked well earlier on, I think, to get the reader right under Cass’s skin, and was a very effective way of getting across her sense of isolation and differentness. It really doesn’t work so well for big battle scenes, because the reader knows immediately that Cass survived, or she wouldn’t be writing her diary afterwards. So the big confrontation is effectively told in abbreviated summary form (‘and then I... and then we...’), which loses a lot of the tension. There is also the problem that the romance has been settled, and while it's a lot of fun going through the are-they-no-surely-not phase with friends, it was actually more fun when they were kept apart and Cass secretly had the hots for him. Or at least, it was more tense. A large part of the atmosphere in the first two books revolved around the very strict military protocols wrapped around everything Cass did and the stiffly correct attitude of the Setari, which kept her so heart-rendingly alone. Now that she's sleeping with one of the Setari and is (largely) friends with the rest, things get a little warm and fuzzy and group-hug-y.

One aspect is unchanged, however; everything still hinges on Cass and her strange set of abilities as 'touchstone', the key to revealing the past, what went wrong to cause the planet Muina to be abandoned, and (indirectly) the present and future too. It's surprising how often these talents drive the plot by revealing key information or making some unfeasibly difficult task possible, but while this is very convenient, it never feels like deus ex machina, since Cass has had these abilities from the start and has simply learned to use them (or to use them better, perhaps). Plus they frequently go wrong or out of control or twist off in unexpected ways. The author is very good at following the appropriate logic for these developments, so that when Cass has one of her frequent brushes with death, she is 'grounded' for a while afterwards, even when it might have been more dramatic to have her present at some incident or other, instead of hearing about it second hand. Nice, too, to see Cass herself using her talents directly to fight her own battles (sometimes literally), instead of being a passive tool to be manipulated. The moment when, in the midst of mayhem, she decides to visualise into reality a battle-winning device of awesome proportions is simply epic.

This is the final part of the trilogy, and I hugely enjoyed the first two parts, so it’s not exactly a big surprise that I loved this one too. Of course, it’s not perfect (what is?). The problem with keeping track of the vast array of characters is even greater this time round, and apart from the Big Bad they all seem to be rather nice, pleasant people. Even the few set up as hostile turn out to be gruff and suspicious rather than outright nasty, in the end. And who'd have thought so many of them would be breath-takingly beautiful, intelligent people? From being entirely alone on a strange planet, Cass ends up friends with pretty much everyone, which is slightly implausible. The complexities of a society of umpteen million people are fairly comprehensively airbrushed away into one homogenous mass (although I guess the ubiquitous interface would eliminate a lot of differences). The rather different society on Nuri was interesting, and I would have liked to know more about it. I also found it strange that so much of life on Tare and Muina was similar to Earth; there was really no effort to make these worlds truly alien, apart from a few minor details tossed in here and there. And anyone looking for explanations for every little mystery will be disappointed, since much remained unanswered or vague.

In the end, though, none of that mattered. I loved Cass's shift over the course of the trilogy from schoolgirl thinking only about romance and exams, to the saviour of worlds and the focus of inter-planetary law-making. And she makes the transition without fuss - the occasional totally justified hissy-fit excepted - and without losing her essential nature or her sense of humour. Much of what she goes through is pretty horrible but she bears it with quiet fortitude and oodles of common sense. One of my favourite fictional characters. Five stars.

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