Book Review: ‘Horizons’ by Mary Rosenblum

'Horizons' by Mary Rosenblum

‘Horizons’ by Mary Rosenblum (UK HBK 978-0765316042, Tor Books, January 2007)

Ahni Huang, grade 9 empath and scion of a Taiwanese ruling family, is en route to the orbital platform ‘New York Up’ by space elevator, to avenge her brother’s murder. The political climate on the platforms is heated, and increasingly volatile. Their citizens are resentful of what they see as overbearing and restrictive control from the ‘downsiders’, and of what they perceive as the callous bigotry of the tourists who contribute to their fragile economies.

Tensions are running high, and everyone has a secret to hide – especially Dane Nilson, the platform garden’s bio-engineer, who is also playing politics behind the scenes as he tries to facilitate the eventual independence of his people. Ahni quickly discovers that nothing is quite as she thought, regarding her brother, the platforms, and the politics in which her family are embroiled. She is soon neck-deep in a web of intrigue, secrecy and double-dealing – a precarious situation that threatens to unbalance the social stability of not only the orbitals, but the entire world.

Horizons is a brisk story, and its themes address the Zeitgeist issues effectively; terrorism, ecological politics, genetic modification and the near-future destiny of the human race are all dominant tropes, in a tale with a fast-moving plot replete with betrayals and reversals of fortune. There’s also plenty of bells-and-whistles sf-nal extrapolation filling out the scenery, without being too overbearing and stealing the show.

Despite these excellent foundations, however, it’s a little disappointing. The plot twists are plentiful, but they never seem to really distress the leads quite as much as they should. The reader cares about the fate of the characters, certainly, but is never truly concerned or worried for them. Ahni’s empathic abilities and nanoware brain enhancements are a convenient get-out-of-jail-free card on a few occasions, weakening a lead character that already possesses a few Mary Sue-ish qualities. The story would benefit from her being more convincingly imperilled from time to time.

Ahni’s indefatigability, combined with the largely problem-free technological background, makes for a work somewhat lacking in shadows and dark corners, which seems to jar slightly with what comes across as a potentially gritty post-cyberpunk plot. The cardboard cast doesn’t help – angry characters seem to be going through the motions, and the motivations of the bad guys seem brittle and contrived. Believable human viciousness doesn’t make much of a showing.

That isn’t to say Horizons is a bad book, however. On the contrary, the plot alone is a superbly constructed piece of work, and demonstrates that Rosenblum knows how to keep a reader’s interest piqued. What it lacks is the courage of its own convictions – it seems to constantly shy away from becoming as nasty and thrilling as it deserves to be. The world-building is excellent stuff, ripe for enjoyable continuations. The characters may be a little thin, but no more so than those of other writers far more feted than Rosenblum. It seems likely that they, and their creator, will develop further as time goes by.

[Note: this review originally published in Vector #249; republished here with the editor’s permission.]

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