Dave Duncan:West of January

These days, Dave Duncan is best-known for his fantasy, with his Seventh Sword trilogy and Man of His Word and Handful of Men tetralogies--all quite stunning pieces of work. His forays into SF have been uneven. West of January is unquestionably his greatest work in that field. I'd call it an overlooked classic, but note that it did win the 1990 Casper(the Canadian SF award, now known as the Aurora).

The story takes place on a world which is not quite tidally locked, but still has a slow rotation--the "year" is one Earth-day longer than the "day". The title comes from the fact that the planet's longitude is measured in "months". (Days of the week are used for latitude.)

The main character, Knobil, starts out as the son of a herdsman, living on the grasslands just west of High Summer(at this point, in January). Herdsman culture allows only one mature male per herd, and when Knobil's father is killed by a rogue, he is cast out to die. But he is saved by one of the angels--beings who drive technological vehicles and preserve knowledge. (Knobil knows that he does not resemble his father, and so was probably fathered by an angel, since they are also allowed the use of herdsman women.)

Knobil's wanderings take him all over the habitable area of the planet--to the inbred sea-people, who frolic with killer whales; to the miners or "ants", who work slaves to death in their mines; to the traders, who wander the planet; to the spinsters, who rule their broods in the jungles of Tuesday and Thursday; and, finally, to the angels themselves.

Duncan has done a superb job of world-building here, and is equally deft at developing the character of Knobil, who continually underrates himself, branding himself a coward when he fails to kill his father's murderer, and doing most of what he does merely so that others will not think of him as a coward. He is not always likeable, but he is never boring, and despite himself he becomes a great man.

Dave Duncan is one of the best authors of the past ten years, and this book makes that fact abundantly clear.

%A Duncan, Dave
%T West of January
%I Ballantine del Rey
%C New York
%D August 1989
%G ISBN 0-345-35836-8
%P 343 pp.
%O Paperback, US$3.95, Can$5.50

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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey / alfvaen@gmail.com