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by James Alan Gardner

paperback edition

James Alan Gardner's first novel, Expendable, was set in a far future where humans have left Earth and joined the star-spanning Technocracy. The Technocracy has fantastically advanced technology and only one universal law: Thou shalt not kill. Vigilant is set in the same future, but stands entirely on its own. It's a good balance of horror, action, and bitter humor.

Faye Smallwood is the daughter of the most famous doctor on the planet Demoth. During Faye's early teens, a plague struck Demoth. The minority human population was left untouched, but the alien Oolom population died an ugly, lingering death in droves until Faye's father found a cure. The last Oolom to die of the plague is Faye's idol, a member of the planetary watchdog group known as the Vigil.

Twenty years later, and a newly-minted member of the Vigil herself, Faye finds herself surrounded again by death and danger. Someone is murdering Vigil members, and someone is ransacking alien ruins, and someone appears to have released a new version of the plague -- and this version kills humans too. And then there's this mysterious glowing blue-green energy field that periodically pops up to save Faye from mortal danger, then disappears up her nose. Lots of people are very interested in this blue-green field, and some of those people are willing to peel Faye apart to find it.

Expendable got off to a tremendous start, but had trouble maintaining that momentum. Vigilant has more even pacing and a more complex plot. Faye's narration is cynical, witty, and earthy. She's a complicated and deeply screwed up character, full of resentment and self-loathing, and her wry voice keeps the horror and tragedy from seeming too over-the-top.

At heart, Vigilant is about redemption. The humans of Demoth are still full of horror and survivor guilt over the Oolom plague. Faye is brimming to the eyeballs with resentment at her father for dying and for not being quite brilliant enough quite soon enough, and at her mother for, well, just generally being an iron-clad bitch. Even the blue-green thing up Faye's nose has a few guilty secrets of its own.

Gardner manages to make all this pain amusing and interesting that things move along briskly, instead of bogging down in a pity wallow. And really, how can you not enjoy a book that has good guys, bad guys, human suffering, alien plagues, and mysterious forces up people's noses? Highly recommended.

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
February 2001

paperback edition
Publisher: Avon Eos
Date: March 1999
ISBN: 0-380-80208-2
Binding: paperback
Pages: 374
Price: US $5.99

If you like this book, you will probably also enjoy:

James Alan Gardner: Expendable

James Alan Gardner: Hunted
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Sep 2001 / CMS