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Review © 2006 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art by Matt Stawicki.



[Some spoilers herein.]

Moira J. Moore is not, to my knowledge, any relation at all to John Moore. Ace has done its best to make her debut fantasy look like one of John's light comedies, but it isn't that kind of book at all. In fact, it's so not that kind of book I imagine the cover design could be seen as a little deceptive. For the most part it's an entirely straight-faced story, set on a lost-colony world plagued by extraordinarily frequent natural disasters that are deflected by teams of innately gifted people called Sources and Shields. Sources possess the skills to negate the coming disasters, but without the Shields protecting them, the power they wield doing so would be fatal to them.

I liked the way Moore took pains to make the Sources' and Shields' powers subtly different from how magic is usually presented in fantasy. It's set up almost as if it were some evolutionary adaptation to the environment that certain descendents of the original colonists acquired. Both Sources and Shields are meticulously trained in their skills by the Source and Shield Service, or Triple S, and no one quite understands how one Source will bond with one Shield. It can be entirely spontaneous, lasts for life, and has nothing to do with how they may or may not like each other as people. Thus both Sources and Shields are rigidly segregated from each other and society at large during their training years, to prevent unintentional spontaneous bonding until they are ready.

Dunleavy Mallorough is a young Shield undergoing her bonding ceremony as the novel opens. To her dismay she is bonded to Lord Shintaro Karish, whose reputation would be described in romance-novel language as that of a rake or a roué but in everyday language as a party animal or player. But he doesn't seem as bad as all that. Sure, his popularity, looks and aristocratic lineage have given him something of an ego. But Dunleavy is much more of a snarky bitch to him than he really deserves. This kinda makes her less sympathetic to readers than he is, which I'm not sure was Moira's idea.

On the one hand, I never exactly liked Dunleavy. As the book went on, though, I felt I at least understood her anger. Shields and Sources don't have a say in how their lives will be led. What's worse, there's significant social injustice in that Sources have a habit of being temperamental, irresponsible or just plain out of control — a psychological by-product of what they do — and if they ever go bad, their Shields can end up in as much trouble as they are if not more, suffering the same damning consequences to their careers and personal lives. Sources are perceived as the ones in the Pair doing most of the work, so they're cut more slack. There's a lot more to the title Resenting the Hero than the cute romance-parody it might imply; this is a fantasy novel populated by as many deeply embittered and emotionally scarred characters as an Arthur Miller play!

Karish and Dunleavy are assigned to the cosmopolitan city of High Scape, which requires numerous Pairs to protect it. No sooner have they arrived in town than it is hit with a devastating series of attacks that kill every Source and Shield there except Karish and Dunleavy. And Dunleavy is only able to shield Karish by the hardest; he spends all his time convalescing inbetween. The Rushes, as Dunleavy calls them, don't feel natural, but directed somehow. But who has the power to manipulate natural forces like that?

At this point in the story, Moira makes several choices that are...well...dumb, considering how everything plays out. No sooner has Karish recovered from the Rushes than he is almost killed in a stabbing. Then, knowing someone is out to kill him — could it be because he has inherited his family's dukedom? — he nevertheless lets himself get kidnapped. It's obvious to us that whomever was behind the Rushes is behind the kidnapping. What's harder to swallow is why someone with the power to create the Rushes would, having failed there, resort to barely competent (after all, they have to try it twice) back-alley thuggery to nail their victim.

Dunleavy's search for Karish leads her to the town of Middle Reach. (Is there a town in Moira's world whose name begins with "Low" or "Third From Bottom," I wonder?) Here she meets Stevan Creol, an aging Source who has never bonded and is thought of as damaged goods. It's dead obvious, again, Creol is our villain. But Moira hopes to misdirect us.

The thing is, if her misdirection had been the real thing, this could have been a much better and more successful novel than it is. Creol has a beef with the Triple S, not merely because of how he's been treated by them. He insists that bonding is unnecessary between Sources and Shields, that the Triple S is basically an unfair monopoly like Ma Bell, and rails against the injustice of Shields suffering for the bad behavior of insouciant and spoiled-brat Sources. He wants to found an independent organization. He sounds entirely reasonable, and at this point I was really, really hoping that the story I was going to get would be one in which the perceived villain was actually the victim of propagandist misrepresentation, and that Dunleavy's character arc would lead her to question her beliefs and make decisions to affect the status quo. That would have been an interesting turn in the plot.

But we don't get that plot, because there's the whole matter of the abducted Karish to resolve. And the way Moira resolves this is not only to turn Creol, within the space of a single chapter, into a comic-book arch-villain with delusions of conquering the world, but to have us believe that, like David Koresh, he has somehow seduced the minds of the entire population of Middle Reach. His bad-movie villain stereotyping is so complete, Moira even has him do the thing of announcing his intention to kill our heroes, but then giving them enough time alone to escape.

So many questions. Are we really expected to believe Creol is going to all this trouble out of boredom? Why did Creol space out his Rushes so that Karish could have sufficient time to recover from each one before the next one hit? If what Creol really wanted in kidnapping Karish was to lure Dunleavy to Middle Reach to serve as his Shield, why didn't he just kidnap Dunleavy? This is all so frustrating, because there is enough latent good writing here that I know Moira Moore could turn in a whip-smart fantasy novel if she thought things through a little more and didn't choose to resort to the obvious.

As it is, her choices are likely to alienate readers. But then, the cover might already have done that. People who don't like cute comedies, but who might like the serious character-driven fantasy Moira is trying to write here, will avoid the book because the cover screams "cute comedy." People who do buy this expecting cute comedy will be disillusioned by how non-cute it really is. You're more likely to end up just Resenting the Story.

Followed by The Hero Strikes Back.