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Book cover art by Ken W. Kelly.
Review © 1998 by Thomas M. Wagner.

A Bait of Dreams reads like several early drafts of an unfinished novel, pieced together haphazardly to fulfill some contractual obligation, rather than as an honest attempt at writing a large scale science-fantasy novel for a serious reading audience. The story ostensibly deals with mysterious jewels known as the Ranga Eyes, which act as a sort of narcotic right out of hell, tantalizing their owners with visions of paradise as they suck out the poor fellows' souls! How you could possibly wreck an idea like that is beyond me, but Jo Clayton manages just fine.

Most of the novel is singed by Clayton's overcooked attempts at generating a Marion Zimmer Bradley sort of magic, and she spends so much time beating the reader over the head with her Strong Female Protagonist that the Ranga Eyes — indeed, the bulk of the story — are often completely forgotten. To appeal to the fans of Aleytys, heroine of her "Daidem" novels (in the universe of which this book is set), as well as the colossal female fantasy readership that has raised Bradley, Cherryh, and McCaffrey to superstardom, Clayton gives us chapter after chapter of the grotesquely named Gleia's personal problems. Most of these involve her relationship to the puckish juggler Shounach, who is on a not-altogether-convincing personal quest to wipe every single Ranga Eye off the face of the planet. Gleia is about as confused and stupid a character as the genre has ever seen. Having managed, by the end of chapter one, to buy herself free from the slavery she has known since childhood, subsequent chapters have her being captured and captured again, into what is, I might add, a completely unbelievable slavery system.

Indeed, Clayton altogether abandons the quest plot in order to have Gleia, later joined by Shounach and the girl Deel, spend all of their time getting enslaved, then outwitting and escaping from their captors. (In one mind-meltingly stupid chapter, Gleia and Shounach are enslaved by aliens only for as long as it takes the aliens to unload their ship.) The only gestures Clayton makes toward the development of her alleged story are that each of these nasties is a probable link to the discovery of where to find the Ranga Eyes. But it is a barely sketched idea.

In fact, virtually none of the ideas Clayton puts forth in this novel is given any kind of development worthy of the name. To begin with, the Ranga Eyes are never convincing as a true evil because the only incidents of ill-doing we hear regarding them are tales told by Clayton's trio of leads, concerning loved ones of theirs who were lost. But we never hear anything about planet-wide scourges, entire genocides of mind-blown Eye junkies. And Clayton's heroes, to boot, are mavericks, representing no one in their half-baked quest apart from themselves. There is little evidence in the narrative that the average man on the street even knows what the Ranga Eyes are. (And while I'm on a roll, I didn't see a whole lot about the world Clayton has created here to make me think it's really worth saving.)

I could go on. I will go on. What is doubly infuriating is that even the story's digressions aren't particularly interesting, failing to provide the kind of "local color" these kinds of picaresque — or wannabe-picaresque — stories need. Gleia's character motivations almost do not exist, and Clayton is shamelessly inconsistent in Gleia's development. In one passage, Clayton tells us "[Gleia] was not accustomed to tailoring her actions to the needs of others." Excuse me? Hello? I thought this girl was a slave most of her life. What's more, though Gleia's ambition is supposedly total freedom and independence, Clayton still has her co-dependently clinging to Shounach like a wet Kleenex, though she repeatedly whines about what an insensitive bastard he is. Clayton also tries to set up something of a ménage á trois between Gleia, Shounach, and Deel which never gets off the ground.

It is mentioned that space travel is a known reality, though this planet's particular culture is Standard Fantasy Faux Medieval, and it is vaguely touched on that Shounach is an off-worlder. But the only aliens we see are the inept would-be slavers mentioned earlier.

And then there is the climax, with the inevitable discovery of the Ranga Eyes (off in a cave somewhere hundreds of miles from anybody). Need I mention that we never find out what they really are, or who brought them there, or why? No? Good. When all is said and done, Jo Clayton's list of failings here is comprehensive. A Bait of Dreams bombs on so many levels, it should be required reading for prospective writers as a textbook example of what not to do. And lest anyone think I've completely lost my sense of humor here, allow me to close this review with a routine bit of cute critic's wordplay: don't bite down on this Bait of Dreams, folks — it's a nightmare.