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Book Review: Cosmopath by Eric Brown

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I always appreciate finding an author, being mildly entertained, and then seeing him or her raise their game in a new book. That's more or less what I found in this novel, the third in a series. I read Brown's second Bengal Station novel, Xenopath, last summer and enjoyed myself. In this case, however, Brown took what worked best previously and trimmed away the rest.

The last book, set on a space station hovering high above the Indian Ocean, was basically a sci-fi whodunit. The action was interesting and, in places, the station was as much a character as anything else. What I liked best about it, though, was the thoughtful character development of Jeff Vaughn, telepathic P.I. The attentions Brown gave his leading man spilled over to the secondary characters and went a long way to making the book readable. In Cosmopath, he has taken that strength and used it to anchor an otherwise mild space-thriller.

Jeff Vaughn has it made. He's working at his leisure for a high profile investigation firm, has a doting family, and can read people's minds (but only when he's switched on). This is where the killer enters, of course, but it comes with a much more personal twist hot on its heels: one of Jeff's daughters has leukemia. At first glance this, like the Indian backdrop, may seem trite, but the execution overcomes any serious banality. There are no scenes of Li fighting for her life and, mercifully, no use of the phrase "brave little soldier." Instead, Brown uses the illness as a powerful personal motivator to send Jeff in the direction the plot needs him to go.

In this distant future, the human race has been steadily pushing into new territories, new planets, in an ever-growing sphere called the Expansion. Just at the edge of it, a ship has gone missing and Vaughn is hired by a space-liner tycoon to accompany the search party. Vaughn's role in the mission is to play the part of necropath, someone who can read the thoughts of the dying or recently dead. It's a rather gruesome task and one Vaughn has taken on before. While I was not a fan of Brown's attitude towards life's final moments, I did find his character's revulsion to the deed complex and deftly handled. As a reader, I was able to share Vaughn's terror at the prospect of reading someone's mind at the moment of death while also pitying him from a safe distance. In general, I found Brown's conceptualization of telepathy interesting. It is not an evolution of human physiology, but rather a technological innovation.  Furthermore, it is not an all powerful omnipotence. Characters have to deal with the ethical dilemmas of reading those close to them and the occasional frustration of being blocked by someone with vital information.

With Jeff off-world, his wife, Sukara is left to tend to their daughters. The tycoon, Chandrasakar, is paying for the medical care, but that doesn't stop killers from going after Sukara, trying to find out what she knows about her husband's mission. On the whole, I found this plot line the weak point in the story. In Xenopath, one of my favorite parts of the book was the development of the relationship between Jeff and Su. With them separated for so much of this novel, a continuation along those lines is impossible. And while I understand the need to avoid retreading familiar ground, I couldn't help but feel that this thread acted more as filler than anything else. The killers chasing Su were motivated by forces tangential to the central players and added little, if anything, to the story. Besides, as soon as they entered the scene, they are constantly referred to as "bastards," virtually exclusive of any other descriptor. It's not that I object to that particular curse, mind you, but it was so out of character with the rest of the narration as to feel jarring.

As in Xenopath, Jeff heads to an alien planet and encounters a species new to humans. Unlike the previous trip, this current voyage is much better executed as a story. The plot twists, driven largely by political machinations coming from about half a dozen different groups, are interesting, exciting, and (for the most part) less predictable than the last book. Part of the improvement, I think, comes from the development of Parveen Das, another telepath on the trip, whose loyalties are muddied by her personal feelings and a fair bit of self-delusion. Her interactions with Vaughn create a lot of tension and confusion in both characters, and the resolution is all the more interesting as a result.

The aliens found on this far away world have more substance about them as well. Indeed, all the sci-fi aspects are vastly improved. The planet is covered in an ever-changing fungal landscape which is much more complicated than it first appears. On the initial read, I was bowled over. I mean, who thinks of covering a planet in mushrooms? But, that's why I love sci-fi. The handling of the physical world as well as the characters' journey through it had something of a Tolkienian feel which, if intentional, was more homage than plagiarism. Likewise, some of the alien technology smacked of Stargate, but with it's own attributes. As a reader, I don't mind finding traces of other stories in my sci-fi/fantasy novels, as long as they are carefully managed. Brown walks that line throughout this book and, on the whole, does it well.

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