Sci-Fi Page Turner: Expedition into the realms of the human and the alien heart
Book Review by Jack A. Urquhart; The Termite Queen: Volume One: The Speaking of the Dead; author, Lorinda J. Taylor
Lorinda J. Taylor’s ambitious science-fiction novel The Termite Queen: Volume One: The Speaking of the Dead marks an auspicious literary debut. A writer possessed of considerable narrative and storytelling talents, Ms. Taylor creates a 30th century adventure that, with but few interruptions, keeps the reader turning pages.
At the center of the action is Ms. Taylor’s young, ambitious, and rule-pushing protagonist, Kaitrin Oliva, an ‘Associate’ Linguistic Anthropologist (apparently there are no doctorates in the 30th century; rather, the academic hierarchy, from lowliest to most exalted, runs ‘assistant,’ ‘associate,’ ‘professor’). Kaitrin’s expertise is brought to bear in the aftermath of a disastrous off-world expedition. Her task: decode the bioelectric communication patterns of an alien specimen—a giant termite—collected during the unhappy mission. Kaitrin’s linguistic and intuitive gifts soon yield a surprising conclusion: the termite, who suffers an untimely and poignantly rendered demise once removed to earth, is an intelligent life form.
Soon preparations are afoot for a second expedition to the termite planet and Kaitrin joins the team headed by the enigmatic (and sometimes downright oblique!) Griffen Gwidian, Professor of entomology. The two get off to a rocky start, but gradually their relationship morphs into the novel’s central love story.
Interspersed with Kaitrin’s and Griffen’s story is an equally tempestuous second storyline unfolding amongst the inhabitants of the termite planet. This reader confesses to savoring the termite chapters—written in the manner of a play—for the communal culture mindset Ms. Taylor skillfully creates. Her termite aliens—despite genetically embedded caste and belief systems (the latter understandably rooted in a ‘Great Goddess’ concept)—mirror mankind’s record for machinations of the type that flare when competing egos collide.
It should be noted that Ms. Taylor, an active member of the ‘conlang’ community (constructed or planned languages) has devoted extraordinary attention to developing, explicating, and rendering in text, the varied languages of her cast of dozens.
Given the author’s interest in linguistics, it is not surprising that The Termite Queen is propelled by dialogue—a writerly skill at which Taylor excels. Volume One features pages and pages of dialogue rendered in character-specific voices. With few exceptions, these conversations, and a minimally intrusive narrative voice, drive the story, building tension and momentum while revealing and/or suggesting the mysteries and foibles of the human and the alien heart.
A word about those rare exceptions. Some readers may stumble over the portions of the novel that seem inserted to provide context and historical background (this reader had occasionally to resist the urge to skim). For example, chapter 14, part one, pauses to summarize 900+ years of earth history prior to the 30th century; chapter 9, part two, presents a discussion (between characters) of interplanetary religious customs and practices, while chapter 10, part two, introduces an overview of interplanetary marriage customs and practices. These interludes are not without interest, but they do suspend—however briefly—the story’s forward momentum. Yet, given Ms. Taylor’s remarkable attention to detail, this reader is willing to trust that nothing has been included that will not eventually—with the release of volume two (?)—serve to facilitate a richer, fuller understanding of the novel.
Finally, a word about Ms. Taylor’s interplanetary cast of characters and their otherworldly, tongue-twisting, eye-ball-popping appellations. The Termite Queen Volume One is filled with names to which the reader may occasionally have trouble attaching a personality. Some examples: Mo’gri’ta’tu, Kwi’ga’ga’tei, Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head, Hi’ta’fu, A’a’ma, to ‘name’ a few. The phonetically challenged reader may find it useful, as I did, to develop a sight vocabulary—a 21st century strategy for navigating a vividly rendered, rewarding, and compelling 30th century universe.
Avid readers of science fiction may also find it useful to visit Ms. Taylor’s blog site http://termitewriter.blogspot.com/ for additional information and explication of her 30th century world and its human and alien inhabitants.
Conclusion: Highly recommended.