Featured Author Review: The January Dancer by Michael Flynn

With the new year, comes the return of our Featured Author segment. For January, we’re honored to feature Michael F. Flynn, an exciting voice in Sci Fi.  Flynn was born in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1947 and began selling short fiction in 1984, rapidly becoming one of the leading lights in the magazine Analog.

Among his best-known novels are Firestar (1996) and its sequels, Rogue Star (1998), Lodestar (2000), and Falling Stars (2001), and the Spiral Arm series, which comprises The January Dancer (2009), Up Jim River (2010), and In the Lion’s Mouth forthcoming in January 2012.

His standalone novel Eifelheim, about a human-alien encounter in 14th-century Europe, was a Hugo Award finalist in 2007. Some of his short fiction has been collected in The Nanotech Chronicles (1991) and The Forest of Time and Other Stories (1997).

Flynn lives with his wife in Easton, Pennsylvania. The following is our own Sam Spokony’s review of the first in the Spiral Arms series, The January Dancer.

 

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The January Dancer
Michael Flynn
Tor (2009)

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Although Michael Flynn chose to wash this novel, from overture to denouement, in the dense chords and floating melodies of a harp, I happened to be listening to something else I found particularly relevant while reading The January Dancer. It was the latest release from tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano’s great group, Us Five — a bunch of Charlie Parker tunes reworked under the album title Bird Songs.

The record is really good because Joe Lovano is an immense musical presence, both tonally and philosophically, and because he put together a fantastic quintet. But it’s also good because, in structuring it, Lovano was able to maintain an effective balance between his own playing and the historical value of the tunes, which is what really counts on albums like this.

It’s never to going to stop being difficult to do old things in new ways — or vice versa — and even more so when you’ve got a whole lot of natural talent. The natural tendency is to eschew the traditional and let oneself go. The problem with that is that you risk losing the real meat of reference, which is probably the reason you chose to work from a classic model in the first place.
I think Flynn faced similar artistic challenges when he decided to write a space opera a few years ago. And, as with a successful contemporary take on bebop jazz, The January Dancer exists simultaneously as a compelling story and a calculated exercise of interpretation.

Aside from revisiting the florid storytelling and romanticism of the genre by placing a compelling quest for a mystical artifact at the fore, Flynn inevitably takes cues from much older narrative forms that, though they do pop up throughout various fantasy and sci-fi epics, always require a delicate touch to really click. In this case, a frame of oral storytelling, which reveals the steps of his plot piece by piece, is just as central to the novel as the quest itself.

The tale is told in a bar by an anonymous, aging man who — refreshingly — doesn’t actually just turn out to be one of the characters he’s been shadily referring to throughout the book. His sole listener, a traveling female musician (the harp is a nice, if predictable choice for something seeking an epic feel) who improvises her own accompaniment to the narrative while also adding enough commentary to give us readers hints as to what Flynn wants us to feel about the images he’s laying down.

In terms of the actual plot, there might be too many characters, but Flynn does well to generally imbue the adventure to find “the dancer” — an ancient stone that can be used to impose its holder’s will on anyone within earshot — with a nice dynamic range of action and, to a degree, personalities. They all have funny names, like the titular Captain January, Bridget Ban, Greystroke, the Fudir, and a few others who all get involved and all follow the stone around in order to protect the world in whatever way each one sees fit to for their own personal reasons.

Aside from those kind of Homeric elements culled together to create the oral narrative frame, the whole thing reminded me a lot of Asimov’s Foundation series, with some richer emotional content. These sci-fi types might just need to get out and play the field more. But, hell, I could probably say that about myself.

It’s always going to be tough to do old things in new ways, but Flynn’s ability to reach for these challenges and run with them is impressive. It’s worth dipping back a couple of years and picking this one up in order to start off this series, if not for a great tale of adventure, then at least to get to know some new fantastical, space-dwelling friends. They may not have anything on Charlie Parker or his disciples, but they’re still more interesting than anyone I’ve met above the stratosphere recently.

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