Ambassador 1 is the kind of book you sit for several hours straight and skip dinner to finish. Or at least that’s what I did. I’ve read a few page turners in the last year or so, and for pace and chapter flow, this slice of space opera and political sci-fi is up there with all of them.
It’s clear that a lot of thought went into the background in this book. The various species of ‘alien’ are so meticulously presented right down to their fine details that I never thought of them as ‘aliens’ during the reading, but more of different evolutions of human life co-existing despite some quite fundamental differences in their values and societies. Having known a little bit about Patty Jansen’s work before I read this, I was expecting more of the physics/dynamics kind of hard science, but on reflection I’m really not sure why. It was equally engaging to see the social science come out to play, as the ‘delegate’ narrator Cory Wilson tries to prevent war between the various sides.
That’s not to say that phys/biol science doesn’t come into play. There’s a great description of time relating to space craft travel, some important research on planet climate, and some number puzzles relating to code to get the reader’s brain working, just to name a few. The science never weighs the action down though, and believe me, this book is all about the action.
It’s also a fine example of how action and tension are not the same thing. When there isn’t violence, there’s always a really strong sense that things might not be as they should for Cory Wilson, during just about every routine he goes through. Political debates and meeting with heavy hitters are always edge-of-the-seat in this book, and reveal some quite neat plot twists at exactly the right times.
Let’s get to the critical then: when I first tried Ambassador 1 a few months ago I didn’t get on with it, largely because opening with the attempt on a president’s life just felt like an opening that could have come from any suspense novel, and put me in the same places I got bored of from authors like Clancy or Ludlum. I admit a certain bias here, because opening with a bang often doesn’t work for me: before a character’s life is on the line, I want to know why I should care, or at least be vaguely interested in the person, especially with first person narrators. Ambassador 1 didn’t give me this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m now very glad I gave it a second chance after reading one of Patty Jansen’s shorter works (‘His Name in Lights’), but right from the start I suspected that the events surrounding Cory Wilson, along with the people he works with, were all going to be more interesting than the narrator himself.
Did I get to like Cory Wilson? Not especially, despite how he has empathy for others where some characters appear to have none. Was I interested in what happened to him? Definitely. His personal life crossing over into his work and affecting how he behaved was believable all the way through – real life ambassadors probably see a lot of the same troubles in being away from home constantly, albeit without the tendrils inter-species romances in the mix. I have to avoid spoilers here, but lets just say Wilson’s relationship with one character who spent most of the book conspicuous by their absence particularly intrigued me. Watching someone battle inside themselves with what they really want in life works well even for a character I didn’t feel a personal attachment to myself. I was more engaged by the Coldi characters and the motivations behind the people who turned out to be the villains (no spoilers) than I was buy Wilson. Although I’ll admit one thing I shared in common with the narrator: the fascination with languages and the ability to speak several.
I’ve never made this comment about a book before, but I think my favourite thing was actually the names of the places and the snippets of made up language. Making up languages is extremely difficult unless you specialise in it (and for the record I don’t, but I’ve tried some research and it baffled me completely), and the author went for the approach of having everything in English but inserting narrative indications of where languages switched, with the occasional single-word inserted in ‘Coldi’ or other tongues. It worked brilliantly, because the words are all memorable, and they sound good. So do the names of planets (I particularly liked ‘Baresh’). There’s a great line about how verbs can become nouns in one language (I speak German fluently, and this often happens in that language) and the idea of different pronouns for situations and tone and who you’re addressing is spot on (it’s been a while since I dabbled in it, but I think Japanese works in a similar way). And I have enjoyed a couple of other reviewer comments about how Cory Wilson is a languages expert and yet frequently curses. Trust me, if you go on a cultural exchange or to live abroad, one of the first things you learn to do is curse!
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes their science fiction to be believable but also a little further removed from the real world than really hard-sf tends to be. It’s the social science that really makes this book what it is, and the page turning quality will keep you on your sofa for hours.