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Review © 2001 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art by Bruce Jensen.



Skirmish, I'm sorry to say, is a cruddy little waste of time, a book whose gritty and "rebellious" space opera aspirations are cut off at the knees by some of the least appealing characters and follow-the-dots plotting I've read in recent memory. As they say in Hollywood, it's a big So What.

I think most of us would agree that a requirement of good, junk-food level escapism is that it ought to be, at the very least, fun. Well, Melisa Michaels doesn't seem to get this most basic of points, as she has created in Melacha Rendell the single most unlikable protagonist I think I have ever encountered in a space opera. Indeed, one of the other characters even calls her "the most arrogant, self-centered, unpleasant woman I have ever had the misfortune to meet," and you'll feel his pain, trust me. Melacha is a pilot who makes her living out in the asteroid belt both smuggling and running cargo for a company called the Company. She's nicknamed Skyrider because she's supposed to be a "hotshot" pilot; indeed, we're told she's the finest out there, though all we ever see her doing is getting into trouble, and her backstory involves her guilt over having made a stupid mistake on one flight that killed her lover. So what's with the superstar rep? Apparently, what qualifies one as a great pilot in Michaels' universe is being able to land a crippled spacecraft on a spinning asteroid after barely escaping being shot out of the sky by a Patrol ship chasing you down for smuggling. An ability to avoid such an encounter in the first place does not seem to count towards a heroic reputation.

Michaels tries, as the story moves forward, to smooth over some of Melacha's rough edges by having her bond with a six year old kid. But it's insultingly manipulative, using a kid the way a bad movie would to tug at the audience's heartstrings. Melacha whines that she feels unloved; perhaps she should rethink her policy of throwing punches at anyone who comes within ten feet of her. It seems that Melacha's favorite pasttime is getting into fistfights; it's virtually all you see her doing in the book's first eighty-odd pages, apart from crashing her ship and getting praised for it. The entire cast, in fact, works at Melacha's level of arrested development. Michaels' dialogue is peppered with such gems as "You watch your mouth, rock slime, or you're the one who's going to die!" and "I'll take you on any day, hotshot." Call me a stuck-up twit, but I didn't find this kind of posturing, immature machismo interesting when I was in sixth grade, and I certainly don't find it interesting as a grown man. You know, I thought it would be hard to find characters more grating than those in Dana Stabenow's Second Star, but hello, here they are. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention; the Belters (those who work in the asteroid belts, whom, we are informed, have developed a gene for freefall) have their very own slang, the most commonly repeated phrase of which is "Whatsamattayou?"

Michaels explains that the pilots' juvenile strutting is simply their mechanism for dealing with the fear of sudden horrible death that we're told is part-and-parcel of living in the asteroid belt; okay, but they're still assholes. But if the concentrated bad-Marvel-comic level characterizations and dialogue weren't off-putting enough, Michaels then steers us into a dull and generic sabotage plot that barely generates enough sense-of-wonder to power a four-watt nightlight. Suffice it to say that this brief but still tedious novel offered precious little of merit to compel me through to its finale; I've rarely felt so indifferent towards a story. Should I be surprised that it spawned not one but four sequels? I suppose not. Look how many Gor novels there were; I think SF fans have proven time and again that there's no such thing as a series so lousy it can't attract a fan following. But hey, maybe Michaels' series does get better. It really couldn't get any worse.

Followed by First Battle.