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WALK THE MOONS ROAD
1985

Book cover art by Ralph McQuarrie.
Review © 1997 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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Here's an impressively mounted but boring and contrived story (written, fascinatingly enough, by a jazz musician) set on an unnamed world inhabited by a myriad of both human and non-human species, who mingle together in a seafaring pre-technological civilization. The "Moons Road" of the title is a galaxy seen across the night sky much like the Milky Way, and the title itself is an indigenous bit of slang roughly meaning to go on a fool's errand. Such a term might well apply to Jim Aikin's handling of this very tale.

The pokey plot involves a human sea captain named Salas Tarag, who rashly bets an entire pub full of drunk seamen that he will be able to meet, face to face, with a being known as a lilith, who is rumored to have arrived secretly in the seaport of Falnerescu where the story is set. A lilith belongs to the humanoid race of the Vli, and is best described as a Vli of a third gender, neither male nor female but somewhere in between. A lilith is revered by the Vli as a priestess to their goddess. They are also necessary participants in the Vli reproductive cycle, since, for some reason, Vli males and females cannot reproduce together and need the intervention of the lilith. In other words, a lilith sleeps with everybody. So consequently, a wealth of rumor, myth, and prejudice surrounds the Vli because of this. But most importantly, no lilith has ever been known to leave the Vli homeland, which would make this something of an historical event.

There's just one problem. When Salas and some cohorts arrive at the Vli diplomatic residence in an effort to sneak him in (in an improbable episode typical of the way Aikin manufactures all of the plot complications to follow), there is a mysterious fire, an attack by a band of armed crazies, and wouldn't you know it, the lilith has disappeared. Salas is hauled before the local governor and held for the lilith's kidnapping, but he breaks free in an effort to prove his innocence and rescue the lilith into the bargain.

What follows is a tedious exercise propelled by convenient coincidences and fortuitous chance occurences that we are supposed to accept, more or less, in an effort to join along in the progression of the story, which is — to be blunt — just plain dull. On top of his lugubrious storytelling, Aikin fails to build characters a reader wants to connect with. One crippling blow to the book is that Zheni, the lilith her(it?)self, who is the object of everyone's worried attention and frantic searches, isn't the least bit interesting. Aikin takes pains to make her so, but she's just bland. It's difficult to carry off the concept of a character who is at once an innocent, yet trained to copulate with virtually every member of her race she meets (it can be done, I imagine — Aikin just didn't do it). There just really wasn't any reason I could fathom to like her, care what happened to her, or worry about her fate. The plot in a nutshell.

Other characters and their relationships fare worse. Salas is a resourceful smooth talker who can manipulate his way into any situation. Osher, an official with the Berkenders (a race with whom the Vli hope to sign an important treaty, which is why they're there in the first place), is just soft and weak-willed enough to allow himself to be talked into anything Salas wants to talk him into. And the plot conveniences and implausibilities continue. Add to this the fact that, though it is believed that Zheni has been kidnapped by a radical group called the Brown Hand who wish to sabotage the Vli/Berkender treaty, the reader in fact knows her fate is quite different; in fact, we know what's happened to her all along. To put it mildly, this defuses the story's suspense.

Aikin's strength lies in world-building. His setting, and its myriad races, cultures, ships, and cities, are very strongly developed and this helps to make the book's early chapters extremely promising. I get the inkling Aikin would have been better suited to the gaming field than as a fiction writer, where his impressive imagination for scenarios could have been put to work creating some really cool RPG's that more skilled hands could have woven stories to fit. As a plotter, though, Aikin's a plodder, and apart from the attractive scenery I didn't find much to enjoy on my trip down the Moons Road.