Stepwater – L. Warren Douglas

Stepwater_-_L_Warren_Douglas_cover
Arbiter #1

Humans are scattered across the universe in a variety of different forms. Barc Doresh, a bear-related man, and Girelf, a manatee-related woman are the heirs to their respective realms on the planet Stepwater. Their relationship, their genes, and political maneuvering lead Barc into substantial trouble, and create tension between the races. Ordinarily, humanity’s distant Arbiter, would send his special forces to resolve the issue. But with the Arbiter’s secret key lost, all the parties must rely on cunning to see them through.

Many writers have tried to emulate Jack Vance. Some have even dedicated a career to it. No one has really succeeded, simply because Vance’s style was so unusual. Happily, in his Arbiter series, L. Warren Douglas, has found the appropriate balance between inspiration and imitation by building on one of Vance’s ideas with his own style.

Douglas’ Arbiter is clearly derived from Vance’s Connatic. Both are nominally powerful individuals who prefer low-key, locally-invented solutions to brute force outside mandates. Both like to wander incognito across the the planets they oversee. It would be hard to believe that Douglas didn’t have Vance’s stories firmly in mind when creating his own series, even to the point of clever epigraphs for each chapter. Douglas gets away with it, however, by asserting his own narrative style. The neologisms are clever, but largely serve the story rather than being fun for their own sake. Characters are much more human and approachable than Vance’s usually are. Overall, there’s simply a greater feeling of cozy closeness to the story, where Vance tends towards cool distance.

All that is to say that while Douglas has clearly built on Vance, he has built quite well. The mechanics of the story are engaging, with political and emotional twists and turns that make sense. The main characters are warm and sympathetic – not only Barc, but the Arbiter, and even his children. The main storylines are nicely interwoven. The logic of the Arbiter’s power (and current dilemma), and of the creation and inter-relation of the human races are sound. The Arbiter stories are essentially puzzle stories, and the puzzles are mainly logical and intriguing.

There are one or two loose ends, and a touch of ex machina magic to the ending, this is a well written and satisfying story. I recall the two subsequent Arbiter stories to be the same, and I was disappointed that the series didn’t continue to to its logical total of seven volumes. I’ve read some of Douglas’ other published SFF, and, while some it is more sophisticated, it’s also not as much fun as this series. Douglas’ site claims there’s another story written, but there’s no sign of publication.

If you haven’t run across the Arbiter series books before, and you’re looking for a quick, fun read, pick this up.

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