Betrayer of Worlds

This review initially appeared at Dreams and Speculations. Thanks to TJ for having me as a guest reviewer!

Title: Betrayer of Worlds
Author: Larry Niven and Edward M Lerner
Format: HC
Page Count: 315
Genre: SF
Publisher: Tor
Pub. Date: 2010
ISBN-13: 9780765326089
Series: sort of the fourth in the series of prequels to Ringworld
Rating: 6 out of 10

Summary:
Louis Wu is dragooned by the alien Nessus into trying to help his species, the Puppeteers, from the possible menace of another species, the Gw’oth. Meanwhile all sorts of machinations are going on within the various species, with potentially disastrous results for all of them.

Brief Version:
I was expecting a grand space opera/adventure. What I got was something that tried to be that but instead left me cold, with no connection to characters and caring little for the outcome.

Review:
The publishers claim that this book can stand alone. It proclaims itself a “Prelude to Ringworld,” but there is no mention on the jacket that there are three other books that fall in the same category, all of them covering events chronologically preceding this one. While it is true that enough back story is given that events and references (mostly) make sense, that back story cannot help but feel frankly tedious. And sometimes there just wasn’t enough explanation for various characters’ motivations or desires to make sense. I think the publishers would have been better marketing this as the fourth in a series, allowing relationships and character nuances to therefore develops organically – and readers like myself, coming in late, be damned.

This review is necessarily biased by the fact that I have read no other Ringworld book. I have no doubt that those who have read the other prequels, or even those who have read the original series, would be more forgiving of its flaws and more understanding of subtleties that no doubt passed me by. Nonetheless, a discussion of the plot and some of the characters:

It’s a fairly complex plot, with multiple changes in viewpoint and numerous crosses and double-crosses. There are humans, Puppeteers (they prefer Citizens) and the Gw’oth; there are stationary planets as well as the Fleet of Worlds belonging to the Puppeteers; there are spies, and mercenaries, and politicians. Bad things happen. Some good things happen, but not many. With few exceptions, though, there was little development of motivation for the Evil Deeds. Additionally, the plot sometimes bypassed ‘fast-paced’ straight to ‘chaotic and jumpy’.

It was the characters that seriously let me down. Louis Wu, aka Nathan Graynor, is a seriously boring lead human. He’s meant to be the one that the reader can genuinely identify with… but he was so dull. He largely lacks motivation and personality; he’s haunted by family memories that are poorly explained; and he mopes a lot. He also gets off a drug addiction so annoyingly fast that it simply screamed Plot Device.

The Puppeteers – so named by humans, apparently, because their double heads look like sock puppets! – could have been very interesting indeed. I don’t recall ever reading about a species whose distinguishing characteristic is ingrained cowardice: cowardice such that they flee a disaster still many thousands of years into their future. But… this is a species with space-faring capabilities; a species whose only limbs are their (three) legs – they manipulate things with their lips and tongues. It is totally unclear to me how they developed any technology at all with those two characteristics; perhaps it’s covered in another book, but it made them quite implausible to me. I did like that they took classical human names when interacting with our species – it was a nice touch – but there was so little presented of their society that really, I did not care.

The main redeeming feature of this book are the Gw’oth, as a society. Wily undersea critters that I imagine look a bit like anemones – they certainly have wavy tentacle bits – they are divided in this story between two planets, one a traditional monarch-ruled society, the other essentially a science-based, Enlightenment-type place. In the latter, the Gw’otesht – essentially a gestalt of made of numerous individuals – are finally accepted as legitimate members of society. This species is genuinely intriguing, and their motivations and desires made the most sense of all.

Two other things bugged me about Betrayer of Worlds. First, the madey-uppy slang. It felt forced and silly. Second, the women, and lack thereof. The first female who gets any real amount of page-space falls into bed with Louis. There’s a female merc, and some female Gw’oth who have a genuine, if cameo, role. And the place of women or reproduction in Puppeteer society is totally opaque; there’s a mention of Companions, who might become Brides if necessary, but that’s it.

So… yeh. I finished it, but I will admit that I skimmed for the last hundred or so pages; I wanted to know how it resolved – and there were some surprises, which pleased me – but overall, the writing did not warrant a thorough read and the required use of my time.

Rating: 6 of 10
I acknowledge being biased by my lack of knowledge about the rest of the series. However, that should not make as much of a difference as it did to feeling a connection – or emotion at all – towards the characters. It should, in a good book, make me itch to go read the rest of the series. Sadly, the writing and characterisation let what could have been quite a good story down. I may one day track down the original Ringworld, and if it’s amazing I might try the others, but they by no means go to the top of my (teetering, slightly perilous) to be read pile.

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