Middle books of series frequently drag. Marjorie F. Baldwin has overcome that problem the way the way George Lucas did in my Star Wars: start in the middle and work out in all directions. But Baldwin is doing it more effectively than Lucas did.
Conditioned Response, the second book of the Phoenician series (Book 1 is forthcoming), throws us into the world of Shayla, a non-human woman living among the human colonists of the planet Altair . . . or is she non-human? One of the main features of this novel is that the reader is left to figure out what’s going on by putting together clues that are scattered throughout. To take two examples, the humans can’t leave the planet and go back to Earth, though why they can’t isn’t yet explained, and the Phoenicians are so thoroughly human in most ways that it seems likely that they’re an offshoot from homo sapiens -- but when the separation occurred, if it did occur, is something Baldwin isn’t telling us yet.
Shayla has been living among the humans for thirteen years, an unwilling mole sent among them as a teenager by the rulers of the Phoenicians, the Seven Chiefs. The Chiefs have a Plan for dealing with the humans, but they haven’t told Shayla what the Plan is. Shayla has her own Plans: to overthrow the World Council, the human ruling group she’s become a part of, and to leave human society with ‘Charlie’, and artificial life form she’s been secretly and illegally creating. But Shayla also has to deal with the machinations of Councillors Dramond and Kindi, a pair of thoroughly evil men she’s had many unpleasant encounters with. They have Plans of their own. She also has ongoing personal relationships with Raif, a “Proctor” (bodyguard) who’s in love with her; Brennan, his illegally cloned heir; Kyree, her Phoenician Mate that she seldom sees; and Julia, her human friend, fellow Councillor, and revolutionary co-conspirator. Lurking in the background is Joshua Andrew Caine, secretive Administrator for the Council, and a mysterious group known as “the Community,” who have their own secret plans and hidden resources.
Over the course of about two weeks, events play out. Baldwin constantly surprises us as her characters interact, and as layers of are peeled away to show us some of what’s really going on. The characters are well-drawn and believable, and the plot hangs together. The pace is relentless, the events believable.
By the end of the novel, some parts of Shayla’s story have been resolved, but plenty remains for book #3, and much of Shayla’s backstory is set to be revealed in book #1.
Conditioned Response gripped me hard from the beginning, provided a thoroughly satisfying read, and left me eager for the rest of the series. Considering this is Baldwin’s first novel, I’m quite impressed. Check it out.