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Three Book Recommendations – Janet Kagan

I posted on Facebook that I’d begun reading Janet Kagan’s Hellspark to my son, and a number of people said they hadn’t heard of the book, or they’d heard of it but hadn’t read it. I’m here to try to remedy that!

Janet was one of my favorite writers. Her work was full of heart and love and warmth, and I always feel better after reading them. She won the 1993 Hugo award for her novelette “The Nutcracker Coup.” She was also kind enough to offer me advice and encouragement when I was starting out.

Sadly, she only produced three novel-length works. I’m a fan of all three, and fully recommend them.

Uhura's Song - CoverUhura’s Song [Amazon | B&N] – A number of people have described this as one of the best Star Trek novels ever.

Years ago, Lt. Uhura befriended a diplomat from Eeiauo, the land of graceful, cat-like beings. The two women exchanged songs and promised never to reveal their secret. Now the U.S.S. Enterprise is orbiting Eeiauo in a desperate race to save the inhabitants before a deadly plague destroys them. Uhura’s secret songs may hold the key to a cure — but the clues are veiled in layers of mystery.

I love the focus on Uhura, the character development, the emphasis on song and culture and taboo and historical conflict and courage. I love the aliens and their names and their characterization and their struggle to do what’s right.

It’s a book that will make you feel good about Star Trek, and about the universe in general.

It’s available as an ebook, or you can pick up a used copy of the print edition.

Hellspark - CoverHellspark [Amazon | B&N] – A standalone SF novel with beautiful worldbuilding, with an emphasis on culture and language and relationships.

The members of the survey team on the newly discovered planet Flashfever are at each other’s throats. Both the local wildlife and the local weather keep trying to zap them. No one can tell if the indigenous creatures named “sprookjes” are sapient, because they insist on parroting the surveyors’ attempts at communication. The surveyors themselves, all from different civilizations, keep stepping on one another’s cultural toes. When a member of the team is found dead, no one knows whether he was killed by a sprookje or another surveyor; and the implications are unpleasant either way.

This description (from Tor) captures the plot, but misses the absolute joy that is protagonist Tocohl Sosumo. Tocohl is a Hellspark — a trader with a gift for language and culture. She’s brought in to help determine whether the sprookjes have their own language, which would prove their sentience. She’s bright, capable, tough, thoughtful, loving, and a delight. Then there’s her childlike AI Maggy, and a cast of wonderfully different characters, all from fascinatingly different cultures.

The worldbuilding in this one makes me despair of my own writing ability. Kagan plunges you into the middle of a well-developed universe, and invites you along for the ride. My son and I are only about 50 pages in. He commented that there are a lot of words he doesn’t recognize, and we talked about how the author was creating new words and worlds and aliens and so on. He’s been enjoying that immersion, and it’s even led to some good conversations about culture and body language and personal space and language and more.

The book is currently out of print and not yet available electronically, but you should be able to track down a used copy for a relatively reasonable price.

Mirabile - CoverMirabile [Amazon | B&N] – This is a collection of six stories about Annie Masmajean, aka Mama Jason, a third-generation colonist on the planet Mirabile.

There’s a problem on the planet Mirabile with Dragon’s Teeth. The humans from Earth sent to colonize the planet on a generations-long voyage through space lost some essential information in transit. Now, in the early decades of human settlement, the Earth plants and animals genetically programmed to proliferate the old species (so that, for instance, a cow might sometimes give birth to a deer, that will breed true, except that sometimes the deer will give birth to a moose…) are occasionally producing mutants. Thus the carnivorous Kangaroo Rex is born, and the Loch moose monster, and the voracious Frankenswine, Dragon’s Teeth that threaten the ecology of Mirabile and perhaps the very survival of the colonists.

Just reading the description should give a sense of how much fun these stories are. It’s been a while since I’ve read this one — I need to remedy that — so my recollection is a little blurry on the details. But I do remember Mama Jason being another of Janet’s wonderful, good-hearted, take-no-crap protagonists. And I remember that, like all of Janet Kagan’s work, reading this one made me happy.

This is probably the hardest of the three books to find. Like Hellspark, it’s out of print and not available electronically. But like the others, I highly recommend reading it if you get the chance.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 24th, 2016 04:01 pm (UTC)
Hellspark is one of my favorite books of all time. When I see used copies, I buy them so that I can give them to people. The characters and cultures are so very distinct that even the characters who aren't around much are clearly drawn. So many of the details are things that fit perfectly but that I'd never have thought of in a million years.

Years ago, when Suzette Hadin Elgin was on LJ, we discussed Hellspark briefly, and she praised it and Kagan for getting the linguistic details right.
Mar. 24th, 2016 04:45 pm (UTC)
I love her books so much.

She was kind to me too, very fiercely. In the late 1980's, I'd written a Star Trek novel. She sent me a copy of her contract for Uhura's Song -- in the days when this had to go in the mail, no scanning it and emailing it -- with detailed footnotes. She wasn't telling me not to try to sell the book to Paramount, just warning me of the amazing horrors of the work-for-hire contract.

Mar. 25th, 2016 06:35 am (UTC)
OTOH, Paramount's rapacious lawyers are why there are two John M. Ford novels that are still in print and available as ebooks. So, silver lining to that contract....

I hope the lack of availability of Hellspark and Mirabile is not for similar reasons, though if that is the case then I'll raise another glass to Paramount's rapacious lawyers.
Mar. 24th, 2016 05:15 pm (UTC)
Hellspark is a delight! I bought two of the Meisha Merlin copies so that I'd always have one to loan out. I also have the original hardback. I'm not obsessed in the least. Not at all.

When I tell people about the book, I always emphasize that the plot revolves around a death - was it murder or accidental - but the theme is "What is Human?"

it’s even led to some good conversations about culture and body language and personal space and language and more

I love using this book as an example of cultural communication. There is a lot more to communicating with someone than just speaking words. How you stand, how you gesture, how you move are all important. And for your son, it might be nice to have a book that talks about the rules and standards in concrete terms.

Edited at 2016-03-24 05:18 pm (UTC)
Mar. 24th, 2016 08:20 pm (UTC)
I must have read Uhura's Song a couple dozen times by now. I do believe it is time for a reread.
Mar. 24th, 2016 08:22 pm (UTC)
I'm lucky to have all three, but I do wish that they were available as ebooks so they could be shared with the coming generations of readers!
Mar. 25th, 2016 02:03 am (UTC)
I remember Uhura's Song! In fact, I think it *was* my favorite Star Trek novel, and I probably still have my copy in a bag of "what the heck am I going to do with these" Star Trek books I've been toting around for years.

I'm going to have to look for copies of the other two--they sound great.
Mar. 25th, 2016 02:25 am (UTC)
My copy of Mirabile is wearing out. I do love the Tulip Bats.
Mar. 25th, 2016 03:38 am (UTC)
Another Kagan fan here...by the way, there's a feature on
Amazon when you bring up the page for a book that isn't in Kindle. If you go a ways down the page, on the right side is a little box that says, "Tell the publisher you'd like to read this on Kindle." You click it. Everybody click it! Over and over again :-)Maybe we'll finally get her novels as ebooks.
Mar. 25th, 2016 11:19 am (UTC)
I have all three, one signed courtesy of the old SF echo on Fidonet and the F.U.B.S in particular, Mirabile is hands down one of my all time fave books, and MamaJason one of the best female chars ever.

Uhuras song is the best ST novel I have read.
Mar. 25th, 2016 04:41 pm (UTC)
Uhura's Song was absolutely one of my favorite Star Trek novels. My Pumonca (werecougar) character on GarouMUSH, Tailkinker, was called that OOCly because of that book. Ditto my Fianna metis naming a cub "Brightspot"! :)

EDIT: Because I mistook Mr. Hines LJ for one by another friend who also talks about books. (Whoops.)

Edited at 2016-03-26 12:55 am (UTC)
Mar. 26th, 2016 02:52 pm (UTC)
No worries :-)

To this day, my family still jokes about pulling tails.
Mar. 25th, 2016 05:24 pm (UTC)
I love Janet Kagan's work, and the hardest thing is that I never got to meet her in person.
Mar. 25th, 2016 06:02 pm (UTC)
"...and the hardest thing is that I never got to meet her in person."

Same here.
Mar. 26th, 2016 01:11 am (UTC)
and that there are no more novels by her.
Mar. 26th, 2016 02:53 pm (UTC)
That too...
Mar. 31st, 2016 08:14 pm (UTC)
Love love love Uhura's Song, I will have to check out the others.
Apr. 8th, 2016 02:49 am (UTC)
Wonderful writer! I just wish she'd written more. LOTS more!
Apr. 8th, 2016 12:31 pm (UTC)
You're not alone.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines


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