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Shade
by Emily Devenport
Roc, 256pp
Published: December 1991

Well, CoKoCon 2018 has come and gone for its debut year and it was a big success, with two fantastic author guests of honor, Harry Turtledove and Beth Cato, both of whom I've reviewed here at the Nameless Zine. CoKoCon will be back next year (same venue, same weekend) but only one guest of honor has been announced thus far: Emily Devenport as the Local Author GoH.

Now I've only read (and reviewed) one of Emily's books and it knocked my socks off. 'Medusa Uploaded' was her first book in fifteen years and it refused to play by the rules. I had to stop reading a number of times, just to be able to reevaluate everything that had gone before in light of a new revelation, yet everything was consistent and engaging. I haven't read anything like it before and, to me, that's one of the biggest positive notes I can find when talking about a book. So, clearly I should delve into the earlier Emily Devenports that are languishing on my shelf.

First up is 'Shade', her debut novel, published in paperback by Roc in 1991 and presumably either inspired by or expanded from her 1987 short story, 'Shade and the Elephant Man'. Certainly Shade, a young lady struggling to survive on the lawless planet of Z'taruh, is our lead character, and Knossos, an Aesopian elephant man, seems to be the most important person in her life, even though she floats around in a lot of different companies, often in apparent search of him.

There are a few obvious things to point out to set the scene properly.

One is that Shade is an intriguingly broken young lady. She was born in Hollywood but escaped our planet after her concert pianist mother failed to come home from a European tour. Her decisions aren't always good but she has enough street sense to survive the bad ones, especially once she escapes the ship that was her escape, onto a strange planet. The plot, or what counts for one, is Shade surviving; we have little idea where we're going or why, though we have a vague idea that something is happening that we're going to tap into at some point. At least Shade can 'scope', which may or may not be a form of mind reading; it seems more like an inherent ability to read people.

Another is that Z'taruh is hardly the best place for her to end up. It has no police, those with enough money able to hire armies of mercenary 'dogs' and those without not worthy of mention. Shade is naturally one of the latter, but she's somehow still consistently worthy of mention, which is why this book is all about her and not another character who flits in and out of the story, worthless one and all.

A third is that there are many cliques, subcultures and even species on Z'taruh, all of which have found a sort of balance, and a fourth is that nobody seems able to escape whichever categories they fall into, except, of course, for Shade. She starts out as a Deadtowner, a sort of punk in space who steals food to survive. Then there are the Runaways and the Skids and the Babies (not all cliques are named for bands, I promise). Deadtowners tend to be human, but there are Q'rin on Z'taruh too, and Lyrri and a variety of Aesopians, human/animal hybrids with an interesting history. These species tolerate each other rather than get along, recent wars not being forgotten.

Finally, the combined effect of all these things is something that's both wildly futuristic and strongly rooted in the late eighties and early nineties. If I hadn't known that this was published in 1991, I'd have guessed within a year or two on either side. It reminded me in many ways of Alan Moore's 'Ballad of Halo Jones', which began publication in '2000 AD' in 1984 and arguably began this sort of story. Deliberately avoiding the stereotypes in place at the time, 'Halo Jones' inevitably helped to create a new one and this is a quintessential prose example.

Like Halo Jones, Shade is a nobody when we begin, just an everyday young lady in an environment that's alien to us but into which we're quickly immersed, with unusual behaviour and slang sprung on us without comment because it's utterly normal to the characters we're following. It's not too difficult to pick up, of course, because there's no gain on the part of the author in making a new world impenetrable, but it's worldbuilding done from the ground up, from the people who don't matter.

For the most part, we stay in the gutter, leaving it only when Shade does for brief spells in other places. When we meet the rich and powerful, which isn't often, it's because they're slumming or because they have business with the downtrodden. On the rare occasions when we visit ivory towers, it's with characters who really don't fit there in the slightest and we empathise with them. When we finally see a spaceship, we realise how far we have been kept from technology. The Deadtowners steal food the old-fashioned way and men and their fellow species fight in the pits the way they've always done, with the rare inclusion of lectrowhips as weapons.

All that makes this a very personal story, aided by the fact that it's told in a very conversational tone, written by Shade freeform in her journal.

'Shade' was published no less than 27 years before 'Medusa Uploaded' and, on the surface, the two books really couldn't have been more different if the author had made a deliberate effort. However, there are some very firm similarities in approach that are worth mentioning.

The leads, Shade and Oichi, are both young women using their wits to survive amongst the lowest social class in their respective environments. Great things are happening, but they're either not happening where these leads are or they're happening in ways that aren't obvious to them; they gain periodic glimpses at bigger pictures but they don't feel part of them until late in their respective books, after much has happened. Also, those bigger pictures are written culturally rather than through traditional chronologies. We find ourselves immersed into new worlds to follow characters who don't know too much and we discover what's going on alongside them.

I liked 'Shade', even though it's a much more straightforward read than 'Medusa Uploaded'. Devenport was on the case from moment one and it's going to be interesting to see how she grew over almost three decades to become something of an ironic 'overnight success'. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For other books by Emily Devenport click here

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