Recent Reading: Arkad’s World by James Cambias

Okay, this is Cambias’ third novel, and I’ve read all of them, and they are all very different, far more so than any other author’s first three novels, so far as I can recollect. Let’s briefly reprise:

A Darkling Sea: This novel features two fantastic alien species, especially the Ilmatarans, who, as you may recollect if you’ve read the book, are the aliens who evolved beneath the thick ice on a planet much like Triton. Much of the story is told from the point of Broadtail, an Ilmataran. This is the best part. We also have the Sholen, a different alien species obviously based, albeit loosely, on bonobos. And then we have the human pov characters, who are fine, but frankly not as engaging as Broadtail. I really should re-read this book, which honestly does feature one of the very best alien species in all of SFF.

Corsair: a near-future SF tale featuring space piracy, and in particular featuring a specific space pirate who gets in a bit over his head with much nastier bad guys. It’s a fairy exciting story, especially as the action picks up in the second half. This time no aliens, but plenty of more complicated and interesting human characters.

And now Arkad’s World, which in fact reads to me a bit more like a first novel, so I’m guessing – and this is purely a guess and could easily be wrong – that Cambias might actually have written it before the other two. Heaven knows books are frequently published out of the order in which an author wrote them. It’s just about as different from the other two as they are different from each other. In this one, we get an alien world on which half a dozen different species mingle, relatively peacefully. Most of them are just trying to get by – they’re ordinary people, by alien standards, not heroes or villains or whatever. There’s just one human kid on this world, and of course we find out something about how he got there and the backstory during the course of the novel. The backstory includes the conquest of Earth, and this story starts with three people coming to Arkad’s world to find the ship that originally brought his parents there, for various reasons that make perfect sense in context.

So that’s the set-up. Arkad, three newly-arrived humans, and a bunch of aliens of various species. My favorite worldbuilding element, no question about it, is the Itooti language, in which there is always an adjective in front of every single noun. Here, for example, is a brief section of a conversation between Arkad and his friend Tiatatoo. I’m leaving out everything but the dialogue.

“Lonely Tiatatoo suggests gentle Arkad come view the adorable babies.”

“Curious Arkad wonders if the healthy babies have personal names.”

“Sensible Tatoota has not given the feeble new babies individual names yet. When the strong children learn to fly, proud Tatoota will give them impressive names.”

“Anxious Arkad hopes affectionate Tiatatoo doesn’t hurt his tiny brother.”

“The vigorous little male will seduce many adoring females if the annoying infant survives.”

This is a wonderful language, and as you may gather just from this snippet, the Itooti don’t have instincts that are all that similar to human instincts. In particular, males are pretty hostile to each other – Arkad is genuinely concerned that his friend might injure his infant male brother. Writing aliens who are alien is something that Cambias did extremely well in A Darkling Sea, so it’s not at all surprising we find great aliens all over the place in Arkad’s World.

The story itself is extremely simple: Arkad and his new friends go on a quest to find that ship. There you go, that’s the story. They do, of course, encounter one or two complications along the way. And the three humans who’ve come to this world are not necessarily what they seem, although an astute reader . . . or in fact even a reader who is not very astute at all . . . will probably rapidly come to three important conclusions: Jacob is in fact exactly what he seems. Baichi is not entirely human. And Ree is a traitor.

I thought about not mentioning that last point on the grounds that it could constitute a spoiler, for a sufficiently non-astute reader. I went back and forth on the issue and finally decided that the reader just cannot miss this EXTREMELY OBVIOUS fact, so, what the heck, I could put it in. And I wanted to mention it, because it is BY FAR this story’s greatest failing. I don’t want to encourage any of you to read this book and then let this flaw smack you in the face as though I somehow didn’t notice it was going to.

From the exact moment Ree’s personal backstory is described, it’s just screamingly obvious that’s she’s a plant. Many further hints follow, if the word “hints” can be used to stand in for “major cluebats.”

Now, it’s completely fine that Arkad doesn’t realize this at first because what does he know? He’s a kid who grew up on his own with no contact with his own species. Baichi, well, who knows, one would think she’d have twigged, but she’s kind of strange, so maybe not. But I cannot begin to describe how extraordinarily dense Jacob had to be not to realize it. There is no justification in the story for his failure here. Moreover, as the story goes on, Arkad seems almost to be in deliberate denial about this extremely important facet of Ree’s character. It’s just . . . words fail me. I’m trying, and failing, to come up with any plot point in any other book ever that is (a) this important, and (b) this obvious, and (c) realized by the protagonist so very, very late in the story, even though he is hammered over the head with it for much of the book.

There is also a very significant deus ex plot element, so given that I’m providing warnings, there you go, this is the second most important failing. It was not as omnipresent an element, so it didn’t bother me a bit.

Despite all this, and despite the death of a character I was really quite fond of, FINE, I liked the book anyway. I’d be happy to read a sequel. Though this story is self-contained, it could indeed take a sequel. Especially if Earth got liberated, because hey, that would be a nice thing to happen. Another alien species ought to be liberated too; I feel bad for them and liberating them would be a fine thing if it could be managed. Lots of room for improvement in this galaxy, to be honest. However, a specific element of the ending makes me feel like a sequel is not super likely to happen. Plus so far Cambias has stuck strictly to standalones, though of course that’s hardly conclusive.

Overall: The aliens are great. The world is fun. Arkad is a fine protagonist. If you decide to read this book, hopefully being prepared for the obvious inevitability of the Big Plot Twist of Ree’s treachery will help you brace yourself for that so you can enjoy this story’s strengths. If you’re into SF With Aliens, by all means, pick this one up.

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