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  Bookends: Dan Davidson
 

Eye of the Beholder

Reviewed: May 11, 2005
By: Julie E. Czerneda
Publisher: DAW Books
413 pages, $9.99

When we first meet Esen-alit-Quar by name she is with her family, sharing the strange adventure she has just had on the planet Kraos, absorbing (quite literally) their reactions and some of their experiences as well. They are not happy with her or what she gives them to remember.

She is a dog-like creature on the planet Kraos, doing her best to lap up the culture and customs of the planetís people, who are also not exactly human. And also not exactly to be trusted.

It turns out that they have been acting as the interstellar equivalent of wreckers for many years, luring down spaceships which might think they were making a treasured First Contact, doing in the crew, taking their goods and making it look like none of it had ever happened - until next time.

Esen stumbles into all of this in her curious way, getting into trouble by being too trusting. After all, sheís only about 500 years old, which is barely out of the cradle, so to speak, for a web being and shape shifter.

There arenít many of them in our part of the universe, and there will be fewer when the story ends. This is not Esenís fault. She may have broken the First Law and allowed another sentient being to discover that she was more than she appeared to be, but it was either that or die, and she didnít see that as an option.

Besides, having their existence revealed by accident to one young human spacer is the least of their problems, as the sans-serif sections of type labeled ďOut ThereĒ remind us every so often. There is a being out there - and we slowly realize what sort of being it must be - that sees itself as Death. It is all appetite, and it is hungry.

Esen, meantime, has formed something of an alliance with the human, Ragem, and he has developed the uncanny ability to detect her, to recognize her personality, no matter what form she hides in. This is quite odd, for when web beings shape shift their function follows their form, and they take on the reflexes and drives of the beings they have copied. Esen has to struggle against space sickness, a herd instinct, and a kind of natural cowardice in the various forms she assumes, and yet Ragem, as they are thrown together by something more than coincidence, manages to recognize her each time.

Julie Czerneda was a biologist before she became a science fiction writer, and her hard science background is very present, but not oppressively so, in her work. It is clever, for instance, that Esenís changes have to obey the law of conservation of matter and energy, and that she must either take on mass by consuming living things, or shed it explosively, when she must change her size.

It is also fascinating, albeit somewhat gross, that she and her webmates and mother exchange information and memories with each other by eating, kind of like a direct RNA transfusion.

In Esenís developing relationship with Ragem, none of this sort of intimacy is possible, and part of the fun of this story is the way in which she, in various guises, has to learn to deal with this fascinated and tenacious human being. While her potential scares him at times, he is truly driven to learn more about her, sharing the same sort of compulsion that she has to be a kind of cosmic anthropologist.

We realize long before Esen or Ragem that she and Death have something in common, that this other creature is what she might be without ethics and a conscience; that she could, in fact, be much more powerful than she is, but only at the cost of something we might call her soul, though she might think of it as a sort of species integrity.

Beholderís Eye is a novel that begins mysteriously, builds slowly, and reaches a really surprising climax that makes you glad you hung around for it.

Best of all, Julieís editor talked her into exploring the further adventures of Esen, and there are two more books I havenít read yet.† Delightful.

Julie E. Czerneda was one of the guest authors at last monthís Young Authorsí Conference.

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