Shield of Drani, by Melonie Purcell - 4 Stars
Forgive some mild exaggeration that I think is necessary to convey the feeling but the most prominent feature of this book is its heroine Taymar, not prominent so much as front and centre and bristling like a furnace of primal rage. Imagine a sister in her 20s who’s so full of adrenaline it’s dripping out of her ears, then add a touch of black backed gorilla defending the flange and cross that with an unstable nuclear reactor from Glasgow who’s just been quietly informed that their football team’s crap. At one end of the fictional scale there’s Barbie and at the faraway other end out steps Taymar of the species Arlele and you’ll never know what hit you because one minute it’s broken glass and the next it’s mind daggers. She just keeps going and isn’t just physical as she also has telekinetic powers, so can easily heave an operating table at you. They say there’s safety in numbers but it’s best to remember a safe number around this madam would be as many miles away as possible. That’s a distilled information burst but you’ll feel the same when you’ve slid through a few hundred pages.
The big question for me is, who could possibly play this role, this alien presence with an adrenal gland the size of a jacket potato? Certainly they’d have to be high on assorted powders because no human hits this state of euphoric combat keenness naturally. While Bruce Lee’s unwinding at home with a cup of tea after a hard day’s Jeet Kune-do-ing, this exquisite pain in the neck would still be kicking down walls in her bedroom and head-butting the cactus. She doesn’t have time to eat, she has an impressive sense of instant retaliation whether she’s wrong or right and, when you see past all that, her behaviour gets her nowhere. Still though, wow. A species with an overwhelming personal survival instinct that ironically reduces their species’ overall chance of survival. Game theory rolls inside out. Then again, generally predator species are self-serving individuals and prey animals work for the survival of the average member of the herd, so the Dran (social herbivore type) being dominant over the Arleles (independent predator type) is also an inversion of what we’d normally expect. Is capability wasted without organisation? For Taymar (and also in a global sense) that’s an interesting thought.
Taymar has a master, a Dran (ruling species) who can get inside her head and twist her around. She’s becoming stronger though and as soon as she sees a chink of light from her series of little containment cells, she’s through it and running down corridors with her hair on fire, metaphorically. Is training her and teaching control the right thing to do or have they got a tiger by the tail here, with a socialization strategy similar to pouring water a drip at a time into a volcano? That could work. Let’s try it (no that’s daft). Some of her character comes from being cornered and controlled and treated like an animal experiment for years but the rest is her species’ natural-born method, so she can’t change it, at least not yet. You will probably also get the feeling that with the captor/captive dynamic hate and love are two sides of the same coin (every stickleback has a sticklefront) and, from a nightmarish beginning, keeper and pet are drawing ever closer.
If you deliberately avoid the image on the cover, Taymar is only really female in the sense that an Apache helicopter or fighting ship is a ‘she’. I wonder how long do Arleles’ relationships last? Probably a matter of minutes. Do the Arleles have a home grown sport to vent their energies, or a brand of dance music to pogo to? How do they look after their young? Do they queue? How do they behave in shops or select between products?
The questions are endless but here’s the clincher: Does she never agonize about shoes?
Apart from Taymar, who you WILL remember as she bounces off the walls of holding cells, the other characters are fun too and I especially like the dependable Irish ship’s captain who laughs it all off in a friendly way and jollies his passengers along, including the exuberant death-vixen. That’s perhaps the best way to treat her, that and taking the first available opportunity to punch her out of an airlock to freeze in space. In brief then, everyone who deserves it gets a hush puppy in the nuts and an alien species invades at a perfectly opportune moment for the Dran species to say “Yes, that’s fine. You can take over responsibility for the Arleles and the planet Drani and we’ll just nip off and live safely in a moon crater somewhere, partying and laughing our heads off until the end of our days. Good luck and here’s the keys, suckers.”
Seriously though, if the Dran and Arleles did share a planet and the Dran discovered space flight, there wouldn’t be an empty seat.
I liked the book and it is a well framed science fiction adventure but I got tired of all the fighting and struggling about sixty pages before it petered out. It is a good read and there’s a useful betrayal thriller angle too, but it could have been even better if Taymar’s character had been more flexible in approach, had a few more vulnerabilities or at the very least had a deeper philosophical inner dialogue to surprise us with. Her understanding of the world she walks through must be unique and she likes it and purrs a bit when a tormentor strokes her neck pattern but the baseline is that she can’t help fighting everybody like GI Jane and if you shut her in a cupboard with a mirror, sooner or later she’d beat herself up. As the invading alien species has been introduced but not filled out in fine detail apart from their body form, it looks like they could be more prominent in the next book and we’ll then get an unravelling of their feelings, motivations and advanced technological culture, just before she flattens them. Then she’ll flatten anyone who gets in the way of her flattening anyone.
The buzzy sensation of vital energy and impulsive reaction transmits so well to the reader that even now, when I’m thinking back over this, it makes me want to go for a jog or race up a climbing wall and howl or something.
Go on, read it. It’s an experience. When you have, try to avoid caffeine and cheese before bedtime or you’ll wake up kicking pillows into the lights.