A Thousand Words for Stranger by Julie E. Czerneda
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The first time that I read A Thousand Words for Stranger, I was about middle school age. I was pulled in by the title, as I recall, and I loved the book! This was space opera before I knew what space opera was called, and all that I knew was that I loved it. The world of competing cultures and fantastical alien races gripped me thoroughly. I don’t think that I finished the book, which is extremely rare for me (I can count on one hand the number of books that I’ve began but not finished in my life), but, on this recent second reading of the novel, I found that I eventually crossed a point beyond which I remembered nothing.
I also found that the book read quite differently over twenty years later.
I’ll say up front, this is Czerneda’s debut novel, and debut novels seldom carry the strengths of an author’s later works. That disclaimer out of the way, what she does so strongly in this book is to create such a wildly imaginative world (that will be the basis for a series, the rest of which I own but have never gotten around to reading). In these pages you will find creative new aliens, worlds, and cultures, which are painted with prose that, while perhaps not literary genius, certainly has its flashes of brilliance. I had no difficulty soaking in the scenes that were being painted for me here, and, were I to identify a single strength of the author, this would be it.
The alien race with which we become most familiar is the Clan, a race that looks Human, but is a race of reclusive, arrogant, and very powerful telepaths, who consider themselves far above races without telepathic abilities. They look down on the use of technology, seeing it as a tool that inferior races use to place themselves onto somewhat equal footing with more advanced races. This is an interesting theme to develop in a science-fiction novel, that of technology being viewed as inferior to natural, organic abilities. Certainly, it’s been done before, but Czerneda explores it well here.
The theme that she is exploring more than any other, though, is the power of choice, the fight to master one’s own fate. Sira, our protagonist, wakes on a planet with no recollection of who she is, what she is doing…or of what she is capable. When she discovers the truth, finally won as she fights through webs of deception, she discovers that she has become someone entirely new during the journey, someone that she likes better. Will she be able to push back on the powers that seek to set her destiny for her and choose her own? Well, I’ll avoid spoilers, but that should tempt you a bit.
The problem that glared at me reading this as an adult is how Czerneda flirts with a romantic sub-plot (pardon the pun). More than the simple issue that romance is not at all a genre that I read, is the issue that she introduces romantic elements, but never brings them to fruition. Romance is a key conflict for storytelling, but it must be permitted to run it’s course once it has been introduced. Czerneda feels timid in writing this element, seeming to toy with the idea and then retreat, all while leaving us with about one hundred too many references to Morgan’s blue eyes. Perhaps this was a plot point that she was coerced to emphasize beyond what she wished by an editor? In any case, it feels forced, and was distracting enough to pull me away from the story on many occasions.
When I initially placed this book on my Goodreads shelf, I rated it with five stars based entirely on my childhood recollection. Now, with much maturity between readings, that rating falls by two stars. I think that, if you’re interested in reading a story with a very spectacular world, then you should give this a try. I think that the rest of the series will get better, and I hope to make time to read it soon.