Labyrinth of Night, Allen Steele

Ace, 1992, 340 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-46741-5

Some books are sold by their cover illustration.

I had been fascinated by Labyrinth of Night‘s cover art ever since I first saw it in a book collection of Bob Eggleton’s paintings. It shows, in warm reds and oranges, human astronauts peering over a Martian landscape complete with pyramids and human face sculpted into rock. Never mind that all that Cydonia stuff is silly beyond belief; the cover illustration was lovely.

Both halves of the novel begin after the initial awed look at Cydonia. Humans have investigated the site, and found an interior labyrinth of deadly puzzles. The last one isn’t about mathematics or physics, but about music… and so authorities draft one rebel musician to come investigate. While he isn’t too pleased to make the Earth/Mars trip, everyone else has bigger problems as things are heating up on Mars between the Russian and the American military forces.

This first part of the novel uses standard narrative segments intercut with pseudo-journalistic excerpts as Steele’s universe is introduced to the reader. This device disappears in the latter part of the book, which takes place two years later and could easily constitute a standalone novel by itself. Though Labyrinth of Night isn’t a fixup, it does feel like an expansion of an original novella. One could quibble with Steele’s unconvincing characterization of military personnel and his knee-jerk antigovernementalism, but the result is still decent hard-SF reading, and that is not something to be dismissed lightly.

Clarke Country, Space doesn’t have the benefit of an eye-popping cover, but holds up fairly well on its own. It was published before Labyrinth of Night and technically presents anterior events, though there is not direct link between the two novels. (Even so, a single line in Labyrinth of Night pretty much sums up the aftermath of Clarke County, Space though the event described doesn’t happen in the earlier novel.)

Clarke County is a space colony, comfortably hosting humanity’s first extraterrestrial community. Discounting the occasional Church of Elvis convention, things are going pretty well. But as it all too often happens with these space colonies, some think that independence would be a Really Good idea… So what do we expect to read? Another Independence-war-story in space, right?

Wrong! For all its setup, back cover blurb and front-cover slogan (“It’s a piece of the sky worth fighting for”), Clarke County, Space ends up being a novel about a mafia assassin pursuing his victim on a space colony, and the Navajo sheriff tracking down the killer. Unexpected, isn’t it? This novel reads a lot like the first part of Labyrinth of Night, a fast-paced prologue to something bigger. But as most Steele fans know, this shouldn’t be interpreted as a rejection; Clarke County, Space is a good read in its own right, with plenty of bigger throwaway pieces cheerfully handed out to the reader in the framing story.

As always, readers of Allen Steele novels can expect some fast-paced adventures, told in a clear and enjoyable prose. Both Clarke County, Space and Labyrinth of Night show very well the strengths (and weaknesses) of this underappreciated hard-SF practitioner.

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