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Dying Of The Light by George R.R. Martin

01/02/2005. Contributed by Jennifer Howell

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pub: Bantam Spectra. 272 page enlarged paperback. Price: $15.00 (US), $21.00 (CAN). ISBN: 0-553-38308-6.

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Given that George RR Martin has conquered the market in doorstop-size fantasy tomes these days, it comes as something of a surprise to see Spectra have raided his back catalogue and come up with...well, at least three slim volumes that have very little to do with 'The Seven Kingdoms'. There's the steamboat vampire yarn 'Fevre Dream', supernatural '60s pop novel 'Armageddon Rag' and this, a 27 year-old melancholy little slice of romantic SF with a difference and some truly gorgeous cover art.

Before I go any further, I should probably confess that 'A Game Of Thrones' is still sitting unread on my shelf and indeed the only taste I've had of Martin's writing so far has been a short story called 'Tower Of Ashes'. Preceding 'Dying Of The Light' by two years and set in the same universe, it's something of an obvious predecessor with the same themes of lost love amid a crumbling alien backdrop. The book, however, runs much darker and deeper with an initially similar set up - maybe it's an acquired taste but both the short story and novel are certainly to my liking.

'Dying Of The Light' starts with Dirk t'Larien being called by his ex-lover, Gwen Delvano, to meet her on a world in the far outer reaches of the star system. When Dirk arrives, however, it's to find a woman vastly changed from the 'Jenny' he knew when they lived back on Avalon. Gwen is studying the alien fauna on the slowly darkening world of Worlorn. She resents Dirk for having tried to make her someone she was not seven years ago - and she's now married. Only, it's to a man who already has a husband...

It's a mark of how subtly Martin plays on your emotions that you spend most of your time in Dirk's befuddled head trying to work out what the hell is going on. If Gwen is happy, why did she call him? And how can she even consider being happy when her husband's people don't even have a word for 'wife'? The closest they ever come is, ominously, 'property'.

It's very hard to say what is more finely wrought here: the characters who so easily could be sketchy clichés, but stubbornly become more and more complex and sympathetic as the story progresses or the incredibly haunting backdrop to it all of the planet Worlorn.

A rogue planet without a star, that has been discovered and discarded throughout the centuries while civilisations have risen and fallen in the other outer planets around it. Worlorn finally got its moment of glory when it was predicted to swing by the constellation of the Wheel of Fire for fifty years and then out again into the darkness. Terraformed and settled by representatives of all of the outer planets for a decade-long Festival when the suns were at their brightest, it was then abandoned when the light started to fade.

By the time Dirk arrives, it is a twilight world of empty cities and a mostly unseen remnant of population. The forests of imported trees and animals are rotting with fungus in the dim sunlight, most of the cities are crumbling ruins. Worlorn tends to stick in your head after you close the book; it's just that kind of place. There's the city of Kryne Lamiya, built by a race who worshipped the dead, crafted so that the buildings sing when the wind blows through. It's the kind of song that makes people want to kill themselves, but there you go. It all pretty much fits the narrative, as it were. There's the city of Challenge, a vast tower controlled by an AI who will live until the light finally goes, programmed to look after a population of millions and now reduced to a few dozen. It's all desperately sad, and vies for attention with the tangled mess of relationships the plot descends into.

Ah, the plot. It's a meditation on lost love, yes. It's also a study of how cultures are shaped and become misunderstood and how they can be lost again - especially Gwen's husband's people, the Kavalar. It's a romance in many ways and yet anti-romantic and fatalistic at its heart. The Arthurian hints - the time spent on a planet called Avalon, Gwen's nickname of Jenny/Guinevere - are important, because most of all it's a tragedy in the high, Shakespearean sense. If you don't have the patience to stay the plot. If you aren't seduced a little by the melancholy of the whole situation and the slow, sad mysteries set up, it might be easy to dismiss this as hollow, pulp genre work. If you like your SF with a little heart and some subtle intelligent ideas, 'Dying Of The Light' is certainly worth it.

Jennifer Howell

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