Before I started reading City of Pearl I was most familiar with author Karen Traviss because of her first two entries into the Star Wars Universe. She is the author of Republic Commando: Hard Contact and Republic Commando: Triple Zero. These are easily two of the best Star Wars novels. City of Pearl was a well regarded debut and I had been meaning to pick the book up for months. Now I wonder what took so long.
Like the Republic Commando novels, City of Pearl focuses on the "guys on the ground". Shan Frankland is an officer in Enviromental Hazard Enforcement. What this means is that Frankland is an eco-cop. In 2299 the Earth is a pretty messed up place. Corporations own patents on every variation of seed and probably DNA on the planet. Farmers can only grow what they can buy and most seeds are terminator seeds, which means the seed dies after one planting thus making the farmers, the economy, and pretty much everyone who wants to eat, entirely beholden to corporations. Frankland's job is to enforce the laws of the planet (and beyond) in order to protect the environment from being harmed even more. She is a hard edged cop, very intimidating and willing to act without hesitation. She is also one of the few who have not accepted some sort of modification to her DNA and body to better do her job. She's just good at it.
But this is background. A senator from the Federal European Union offers Frankland a mission to a faraway planet which had been colonized by humans. The catch is that Frankland won't know exactly what the mission is after she accepts it because she is given a Suppressed Briefing. This is a drug which will inhibit the memories of the previous conversation and the memories will only return in time and when certain things trigger the memories. The Senator has her reasons and Frankland apparantly has her own reasons for accepting when she was about to retire. The mission will, because of space travel, take one hundred and fifty years of Earth time by the time Frankland returns. Everything and everyone she knows will be long gone when she comes back. Still, she accepts.
Cavanagh's Star II is the planet. Besides the remnants of the human settlement, the planet is claimed, one way or another, by three alien species: The Aquatic bezeri, the invading isenj, the harshly protective wess'har. The peace is uneasy because the wess'har have a blockade of CS2 to prevent the isenj from returning. Like everyone else, they have their reasons. The bezeri truly call the planet home.
But this is starting to get overly complicated in the description. Shan Frankland finds herself as the civilian commander of a group of marines and a team of scientists. The scientists work for corporations and want to take as many samples as they can. The humans on CS2 live in a very ecologically friendly manner and refuse to let samples be taken. Frankland finds herself siding with the natives and with the wess'har, of whom she meets Aras. Aras has a long history of protecting CS2 and the humans and he is willing to destroy Frankland's ship if necessary to protect the world.
What Karen Traviss has done here is create a military, environmental, character driven science fiction novel that doesn't hit the reader over the head with any of the points. It's quite remarkable, really. Traviss, as one might except after reading her Star Wars work, is quite adept at writing from the perspective of the soldiers. They are hard working and pragmatic and respect strong leadership and Frankland's leadership is stronger even that the military commander on that field. Frankland has to balance the requirements of the natives, the wess'har, and her own people. She also needs to discover what exactly her mission is on CS2. She hasn't found all of the trigger points to bring the briefing to the front of her mind. All of this is well written by Karen Traviss. Her focus on the characters rather than the over-reaching ambitions of the folks with true power is what is so fascinating, that she writes about the people who actuall do stuff and she writes it well.
City of Pearl is one of the best science fiction debuts I've read, though I admit I am not widely read in the genre. The only part of the novel that did not work was the cliche of using apostraphes in naming. In this case it was for some alien names rather than human, but still, I don't like it. There is much here to like, however. Traviss's use of flashbacks for Frankland was very effective as the flashback with the gorilla is one of the most memorable ones I've read and it really put the character into perspective and gave a good idea of why Frankland is the way she is. Excellent writing, excellent story and I cannot wait to read Crossing the Line, the next volume in the Wess'har Wars.