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Book cover art by Matt Stawicki.
Review © 2002 by Thomas M. Wagner.

[This review contains mild spoilers.]

Belarus, the first novel under the pen name "Lee Hogan" by the same writer known as Emily Devenport, is a hell of a lot better than her books under the Devenport moniker, even if it does miss the bullseye by a Siberian mile. There's much inventiveness at work in Belarus, but there's also a bizarre attempt to be about a dozen different novels at once. The book wants to be a first contact novel, a sociopolitical space colony epic, a high-tech horror story, a serial killer police procedural, an intimate family drama, an interstellar-war actioner, and a sweeping good-vs-evil saga rooted in myths, religion and Russian folktales. There's even an actual appearance by the mythic Russian witch Baba Yaga. Whew. Give Hogan points for creative chutzpah, but it's not surprising that, in trying to squeeze every cool idea she had into this novel, her reach often exceeds her grasp.

The novel relates the trials and tribulations of a team of Russian colonists in their attempts to settle an alien world they've named Belarus. The leader of the colony expedition is Andrei Mironenko, scion of a long line of Russian nobility whose dream has been to revive Russia's imperial past. Indeed, Andrei is the "tsar" of the colony, though he has introduced a Bill of Rights presumably similar to that in operation in the U.S. Among Andrei's trusted staff are Natalia Korsakova, his cyber-enhanced "world designer," and Grigory, an Enhanced Special Agent (ESA) whose mind is linked to the vast network of Sprites — little AI's — that pass information throughout the Republic which governs all human colony worlds in space.

No sooner have they arrived in the Belarus system than their Sprites discover some strange alien artifacts orbiting a gas giant. Frightful booby traps within the artifacts nearly kill a team of ESA's sent to investigate. This isn't good.

The colony on Belarus grows and begins to thrive, until families living in outlying rural regions begin disappearing strangely. Horrifically mutilated corpses are found, leading a local law enforcement agent to think there may be a special breed of "superkiller" at work. Hogan/Devenport works for the Arizona Dept. of Corrections, and in this part of the novel she brings her law enforcement expertise to bear. But interestingly, everything she discusses sounds very contemporary. She doesn't speculate upon how criminal profiling might advance in the distant future, where even aliens might be involved. Also, this part of the book lapses into some clichéd characters and dialogue, as in the following: "No accidents for this guy. Everything he does, down to the tiniest detail, is for a reason." Sounds like Morgan Freeman in Seven. Or: "For decades, all I cared about was catching the bastards. ...And guess what? Tomorrow there's some new freak to look for." That line could have come from an episode of Hill Street Blues from 1986.

It turns out the killers are a group of aliens who have fled to the Belarus system years ago, and their favorite activities seem to be killing, killing and killing, after which they empathically feed on the pain of their victims by devouring their livers. We know this because Hogan makes the error of introducing us to them early in the novel, and right away, there was something about them I didn't believe. Their evil comes off as too one-dimensional and unoriginal.

There are strong individual scenes here, that, taken in isolation, have powerful dramatic effect. But the novel doesn't jell, never becomes a cohesive whole. Hogan just wants to have too much going on. She introduces potentially intimate relationships (both platonic and otherwise) between characters, that he then abandons. Hogan's plot is hampered further when, halfway through the novel, she launches a vast interstellar war that ultimately topples the Republic and leaves Belarus stranded without its Sprite network. When this is all done, it's back to finding the scary aliens, who are now burning out the entire populations of towns. And yet, somehow it's hard to have much emotional connection to any of this, when we've just witnessed a war in which entire planets were blown out of space and people have died by the umpty billions. The final 75 pages do offer some excitement, though, and some impressive surprises.

I recommend Belarus only with strong reservations. It is easy to sense just how much better a novel it could have been had Hogan simplified and narrowed her focus. However, you could do worse. I'm hopeful the second "Lee Hogan" effort will be a big improvement. Followed by Enemies.