FreeMaster by Kris Jensen
DAW Books, 1990
Price I paid: none
THE TERRAN UNION
had sent Sarah Anders to Ardel to establish a trade agreement. For the very sands of this world were laden with materials vital to offworlders but of little value to the low-tech Ardellans. Unfortunately, the Union was not alone in seeing the worth of the planet. Other, far more ruthless humans were about to stake their claim with the aid of forbidden technology, treacherous double-dealing, and threats of destruction to the clans of Ardel.
Alone, Sarah could not stand against this mercenary invasion. Yet the Ardellans had defenses of their own, powers which only a human such as Sarah could even begin to understand. For she, too, had mind talents locked within her, and the FreeMasters of Ardel just might provide the key to her long-dormant abilities. But the Ardellans were also fighting to preserve the slowly diminishing population of their clans and Houses. And Terran interference—even that of a human who was on their side—just might push them past the point of no return….
Where do I even start?
Sometimes I feel the need to use some kind of note-taking device when I’m reading these books. Maybe it’s because there’s a lot going on, or the names are ridiculous, or the plot of convoluted, or I just can’t concentrate. Usually I end up using my phone and Google Keep, but for this book I had to break out the old paper. I bummed a steno pad from my roommate and just went a-writing. And I ended up with about two pages of notes.
Whereas last week’s review pointed out that I was having trouble concentrating despite the book being something I might actually have been interested in, this week we’ve got a book that kept me from concentrating for absolutely legitimate reasons. This book had nothing going on at all worth paying attention to. I pulled out the notebook to record things like character names and my thoughts in the hope that maybe something would one day be relevant and I would be able to refer back to it. But no. That never happened.
I think the back-cover synopsis gives us a pretty good feeling for what we’ve got going on in this book. For one, it’s not actually all that inaccurate. For that matter, neither is the cover, believe it or not. But the thing about that jacket copy is that it just goes on. It’s at least 200 words. No book needs 200 words of jacket copy. Make it quick and simple and snappy, and we’ll decide if we want to read for more details.
So this is going to be the first review were I just straight up re-write the jacket copy. I feel like I could have been doing this for a long time, actually, but it only just occurred to me. So here you go, revised back cover synopsis for FreeMaster:
There are some ALIENS and they have A LOT OF CUSTOMS that you are going to learn about in GREAT DETAIL
MEANWHILE some HUMANS want their STUFF
The ALIENS don’t need the STUFF but their CUSTOMS mean DIFFICULTIES for the HUMANS
SOME HUMANS ARE BAD
SOME OTHERS ARE GOOD
WHO KNOWS WHICH WILL PREVAIL OVER THE WORLD OF THE
Note to all publishing houses: I’m available.
You know how I like to complain about protagonists who are little more than a camera mount? The ones that don’t do anything, don’t want anything, and don’t progress the plot in any kind of meaningful way? They just watch? Well hold on to your butts, because we just hit a new low.
Sarah Anders represents the Terran Union. Of note: near the end of the book we learn her rank and it turns out that she’s Commander Anders.
IT SHOULD HAVE TAKEN YOU POINT TWO SECONDS TO SEE THAT THAT SOUNDS REALLY STUPID
The Terran Union wants mining rights for the titanium sands of the planet Ardel. It turns out that titanium is just sitting around on the surface of this planet, waiting to be turned into spaceships and soda cans. Sarah is sent to negotiate for those rights, which is something she neglects to do for the entirety of the book.
Am I saying she’s just a viewpoint character? Nope. Not at all. She’s not even that.
She’s barely even in the book for most of it. The novel shows us this alien culture mainly from the point of view of the aliens. Lots of the aliens. Individually. It’s like Harry Turtledove wrote this book but forgot to make it interesting and then handed it over to George R.R. Martin to add a few more characters but no plot or anything else of value.
And the descriptions go on and on, even when they’re from the aliens’ points of view. Even when the narration is describing something that the aliens see every day, interact with regularly, and are intimately familiar with. It’s like if I wrote these reviews by going
Thomas put his hands on the keyboard the way he did every week. The keys were black with white letters. A small green LED in the top-right corner told him that NUMLOCK was on. He began to type.
“FreeMaster by Kris Jenson”
Thomas settled back to look at his work. He noted that he’d accidentally typed “Jensen” as “Jenson.” He hit backspace, a key between = and INSRT, until he deleted the mis-typed vowel. He re-typed it three times before he finally got it right.
THIS IS THE WHOLE BOOK
TWO HUNDRED AND EIGHTY PAGES OF THIS CRAP
The aliens have all sorts of things going for them. They’re all psychics. They can shoot mental bolts and make mental fire and sometimes they do that but usually they don’t. Many times in the book one of the aliens will start to charge up some kind of mental blast and then getting interrupted before shooting it, thus meaning I just read five pages that didn’t resolve anything.
The other part of their psychic powers is that they project auras that reflect their emotions. So we get to see their emotions all over the place. Tell me the difference between these two passages I just made up:
- Steve was angry.
- Steve’s aura glowed red with flecks of gold and blue. The freedok was angry.
The answer is that THE SECOND ONE IS LONGER
I find this utterly hilarious because I can totally see the author in my mind’s eye going “I know I’m not supposed to just tell the reader what somebody is feeling and that it’s a lot better to show them. Wait, I know…!”
I guess I should stop kvetching and tell you what the plot of this story is. Except I’m not sure why I should have to when the author clearly didn’t feel like it. Why is this suddenly my responsibility?
The Terran Union wants mineral rights. Also wanting mineral rights is a big scary evil corporation named Nagashimi-BOEM. The TU sends Sarah. Nagashimi-BOEM sends a guy named Durrow. It turns out the two characters have a past. In some previous mission Durrow shot Sarah in the arm. This is fairly pointless detail.
The desert on this planet that has these titanium sands belongs to Clan Alu. That’s who Sarah is negotiating with for the rights. Durrow, on the other hand, is hanging out with Clan Eiku. He convinces Clan Eiku that they have rightful ownership of those lands and should be negotiating with him. I don’t know how he does this.
He also starts interfering all over the place with Ardellan policy, something that the Ardellans really don’t like when they know about it. He sends a member of Clan Eiku to assassinate an Alu guy with a Terran laser gun, something that, I guess, makes everybody paranoid or something? Distrustful to Terrans? But then won’t they distrust you, too, Durrow? What’s going on here? Why doesn’t anything anybody does make any sense?
Well, for the most part you can put stuff down to the fact that Durrow is that special kind of villain alignment: Stupid Evil. He never even makes an attempt to actually negotiate with these people, or learn their customs, or any of that. He’s just using the Ardellans and it’s really obvious that he’s the bad guy because of that fact.
And this puts him in contrast to Sarah, who is obviously the good guy because she’s doing everything in the exact opposite manner. She makes friends with the Ardellans, learns their language and culture, and lives among them. She even thinks about how nice it would be to take a permanent post on the planet after the negotiations are over.
Due to Durrow’s manipulation there’s a land dispute between Clans Anu and Eiku. Whoever wins gets to make a deal with their respective human representative. The dispute is resolved by single combat between the leaders of the clans.
Durrow shows up to the combat with some guys and laser guns and guns everybody down, thinking that will mean that his side wins. It doesn’t. So he runs away to some other people, claiming that Clan Anu cheated, and tries to get a judgement passed. An Ardellan kills Durrow at some point. Another combat happens, Sarah decides that she doesn’t want her friends to be hurt, she jumps into the combat ring and takes the energy bolts herself, dies, and the book ends.
Seriously I just told you in seven paragraphs what took this author almost three hundred pages.
And I did it with more emotional resonance, too.
The parts of the book that did focus on Sarah usually did so in order to tell us how great she is. Unlike any other human, it turns out that she’s got powers somewhat similar to the Ardellans. She can sense emotions and near the middle of the book she starts making small strides in creating mental fire. It might have something to do with her Navajo ancestry. This is all very nice and does completely jack to progress the story.
I guess it’s supposed to be tragic or surprising when she jumps into the ring and sacrifices herself to save the two guys who were fighting over whatever was going on. But it wasn’t. She wasn’t much of a character to begin with, especially considering that she’s only in a total of maybe fifty pages of this book. That’s one-sixth of it, for those of you playing along at home.
You might be noting that I haven’t described the Ardellans all that much beyond their powers. You might be surprised that despite nearly every damn thing in this novel warranting three paragraphs of descriptions, the physical layout of these aliens isn’t one of those things. We get a little. We know they have six fingers (no thumbs, apparently). I guess they’re supposed to look like the guy on the front cover, but nothing in the text proves that.
We do learn a lot about their life cycles, though, and honestly it’s kind of interesting in an “at least she thought about it” way. Ardellans start out as “younglings,” little betentacled creatures that run around and stuff. A minority of younglings ever make it to adulthood, and there’s always a surplus, so when children die, it’s no big deal.
This is going to sound weird but I kind of like that. Science fiction is great for making us stop and think “Oh, that’s crazy, but in a way it makes sense that an alien culture might think that way. Perhaps this is an opportunity to re-evaluate my own prejudices and ways of thinking.”
The next stage after being a youngling is the male one, and then after that it’s the female one. I feel like the progression was described but honestly I can’t remember a lot of those details, seeing as how they’re mixed in with all the other details from this book. Mating takes partners from all three stages. Somehow turning a youngling into an adult makes a Mother create more younglings. As many times as this ritual was repeated in the book, and it was at least three times, I wasn’t quite able to follow it, but I’m okay with that, since an alien mating ritual wouldn’t necessarily make sense to a human.
It does make me feel like the usage of “male” and “female” and “he” and “she” was out of place. I think the book would have benefitted from the author actually applying a little more detail there, and coming up with some new pronouns and the like. Really make these aliens feel alien.
Despite all this neat non-human stuff, the Ardellans were, culturally, basically humans with super powers. I can’t really fault the author there too much, though, since that’s the most common representation of aliens in the genre. What’s a Vulcan but a logical human with pointed ears, after all?
This novel is the first in a trilogy. I have to wonder just who the viewpoint character is for the next two books, but I don’t wonder it nearly enough to actually seek them out.