Monday, July 12, 2010

Het sterrensnoer - Mark Laurence

As you may have guessed from the title, Het sterrensnoer is a Dutch language title. It's been a while since I've reviewed one of those. The last one was Adrain Stone's Ziel van de Duivel in April. Unfortunately interesting genre fiction titles by Dutch language authors are far from common. Het sterrensnoer is the eighth book appearing under the Books of Fantasy imprint, a published that attempts to give new talent in genre fiction a chance. I've read two others (see the Vuurproef review) and both impressed me with the quality of the writing, editing and design. Given the small print run of one of these novels a surprising amount of time and energy is devoted to publishing these books. Het Sterrensnoer is no exception.

Centuries ago a space ship was forced to make an emergency landing on the planet Barash. It soon became apparent that the survivors were not going anywhere and so efforts were shifted to long term survival. Every bit of technical know-how was used to create a new civilization, one that would be able to maintain their level of technological development. Several centuries on, this has proven to be most difficult indeed. What is left of star ship technology is rapidly wearing out and nobody is interested in, or capable of, keeping things going.

The ancient ones where thorough in storing their knowledge though. Even in a world more interested in astrology, strange religious cults and wizardry some people strive to regain what is lost. On the west coast of the continent of West-Barash a girl named Merle is born with startling blue hair. Although she doesn't know it, her hair announces her a descendant of the crashed star travellers. She is one of the few people with the power to unlock the lost knowledge of the ancient ones, knowledge much desired by the few who know about it. When Merle discovers a family heirloom, an ancient book written in a script only she can decipher containing hints of her heritage, the ruler of the city she grew up in manipulates her into starting a quest to return the lost knowledge of the star ship to the people. A quest that turns out to be more than a little dangerous.

I've been thinking about how to translate the title for you for a couple of days now and it proving to be a pain in the backside. Dutch is one of those languages where you can take two words, glue them together and make a new one. Thus we end up with words like rioolwaterzuiveringsinstallatie (sewage treatment plant) which tags together four words (I will leave it to you to figure out which). We're not quite as bad as the Germans but it is close. Sterrensnoer is one of these constructed words. Ster, plural sterren, means star(s). Snoer can mean chord, line, rope or in this case necklace. Necklace of Stars? Or from the stars as the story suggests it is? Doesn't quite have the same ring to it as in Dutch. This necklace is a very important object in the story however, somehow it ought to show up in the title.

Important this necklace may be, it is also a part of the story with which I had a problem. Merle is quite ignorant of a great many things, one of them being the origin and properties of the necklace. It is an artefact of enormous power but Merle seems to have no control over it. As she starts out on her journey, hopelessly unprepared, it saves her from certain death an number of times in deus ex machina-like fashion. Some of these scenes would have been a lot more convincing if we had know at least a little bit of the history of the necklace and what it was capable of. It's one example of a problem that shows up in a number of places in the novel. Foreshadowing is almost non-existent in this book. This lack makes the story very unpredictable but also creates the impression of reading about a series of seemingly unrelated events. It takes quite a lot of explaining in the last fifty or so pages of the book to bring it all together.

That being said, Het sterrensnoer has more than a few things going for it. Laurence is not afraid to mix fantasy elements into what could be considered a science fiction story. On his website he mentions Jack Vance as one of his influences and the way he blends science and magic did remind me of the atmosphere in some of the Dying Earth stories. Although not everybody appreciates broken down space ships, beam weapons and motorized vehicles in their fantasy, this novel has a certain cross-over appeal. Given the small number of science fiction works still appearing in Dutch, that is certainly not a bad thing.

Another thing I absolutely loved about this book is the author's use of the Dutch language. Many texts in modern Dutch, and translations in particular, are riddled with Anglicisms. I don't consider myself a purist when it comes to the Dutch language but I do like it when people remember which language they are writing in. Laurence's use of language is not overly flowery but he employs a wide vocabulary, using some words I don't remember seeing in any text in quite a while. His vocabulary is to an extend tailored to create a fantastic atmosphere in the story, something in which he succeeds very well. It gives him a certain freedom in his choice of words and he employs it to the fullest extend. Some may consider his vocabulary slightly old-fashioned but I am very impressed with what he shows us of his language skills. Laurence wields language like a precision instrument, without the need to resort to bluntness or crudely descriptive passages. In that respect this novel is a very enjoyable read.

Het sterrensnoer is a début novel and in places the inexperience of the author shows. That did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying most aspects of this novel. If Laurence manages to get a little more grip on his plotting his next book, he clearly leaves himself opportunities for a sequel, could be very good indeed. His début is a little short of excellent but I would certainly call it promising. Het sterrensnoer is an action-packed, fantasy-tinged science fiction story that ought to have quite a wide appeal. I for one, will be keeping an eye out for his writing from now on.

Book Details
Title: Het sterrensnoer
Author: Mark Laurence
Publisher: Books of Fantasy
Pages: 320
Year: 2009
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-94-608600-3-4
First published: 2009

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