“Coyote Rising” by Allen Steele – Review – Science Fiction

The continuation of Steele’s analogue of the American tale.

Aug 14, 2011 – Coyote Rising is (mostly) the story of revolution, fighting against overwhelming odds to clasp hold of freedom. Just as Coyote was basically a sci-fi retelling of the pilgrims landing in the Americas, Rising is a retelling of the American revolution, at least in spirit. There are a number of distinct differences between Coyote and it’s sequel, and the end result is not better, nor much worse, just different.

I’ll assume that you’ve read the first book, though at times knowledge of the first book seems unimportant. I say this because that the first three sub-stories of the book’s narrative have little to do with events of the first book at all. Sure the setting is the same, but our exposure to the original cast of characters is practically nonexistent. What we have instead is an assortment of three story arcs focused on characters that are largely peripheral to the main plot. First a story about a musician newly come to Coyote, second a story of a religious cult, and third the story of a bridge builder.

Each story is interesting in it’s own right, to be sure, and each is very character driven. The story about the musical composer details the struggles and relationships of those who arrive on Coyote under the banner of social collectivism. The bridge builder is probably my favorite, showing a reclusive eccentric getting in touch with his sense of community and humanity, somewhat ironically in his defiance of the “communal” government.

The religious cult story, while interesting, was truly bizarre. Much of the rest of the Coyote story is grounded and realistic, but this tale of a grotesquely modified man, mad science, religious insanity and ill-fated treks through the wilderness bolts directly in the other direction. In that respect it sticks with you. You can’t help it as it is so disparate from the rest of the book, and the characters are intricate, yet I don’t feel it ever made the case to me as to why the story needed to be here. The characters make appearances elsewhere in the book, but they never felt necessary.

I understand why Steele did this. He wanted to give us a picture, to some degree of the new arrivals on Coyote, to connect us to them and show that they aren’t a bunch of communist sheep come to claim the land. In that he succeeds, but the entire time I read these stories I was itching to get back to the meat of the book, to get to what I came back to the series for, the original characters. Where he excels in character and setting development, he somewhat fails in connecting the plot.

When we finally get back to the original characters it was very refreshing. I became once again fascinated by the sense that I was watching the history of this alien world unfold through the eyes of people I’d come to care about. But while this was great and all, it wasn’t everything I could have hoped for. While he got back to the plot, he didn’t keep his character focused writing. The trade-off isn’t extreme. We still get some very nice character sequences, such as the reunion of Chris and Carlos, and the return of Wendy’s journal, but the focus becomes mostly plot centric. It’s an odd dichotomy, where the first half of the book is so strong with character but mild on plot, while the second half is strong on plot but medium on character.

There are a few personal disappointments I had with the book that stem with my expectations or hopes leading out of the first. Primarily I was sad to see a downplaying of the fantasy epic Gillis wrote. I understand it can’t be earth (or Coyote) changing after only a decade or two, but I still want to see how it impact the local culture, which hasn’t really happened yet. I suppose this yearning mostly stems from how much I loved the way culture can mold itself in new ways in works like the Change series by S.M. Stirling. I recognize this is a bit unfair to Steele, but there you have it.

My second qualm is how little exploration I felt the book had. While the terrain does seem more diverse now, I still never got much of a sense of “the new world” so to speak, and that was one of my favorite elements of the first book. Despite setting up shop on a whole new continent, we got very little exposure to new and exciting flora and fauna.

One last notable difference between this book and the last is that I don’t recall Steele switching in and out of Present and Past tenses anymore. This may be a symptom of having all the characters in the same general time frame, as which wasn’t always the case last time. Whichever way, it made the reading experience smother, if a bit less artistic.

For all these differences I want to stress that they are mostly differences, and not flaws. The book is more uneven than the last one, and it doesn’t have nearly as gripping a beginning, but I would be lying if I said there weren’t several stand-out moments that kept me glued to the page. The ending is also great with a climax that doesn’t end quite the way you’d expect, but mostly the way you would hope, while leaving threads wide open to new story possibilities that should come to fruition in the third book.

Closing Comments:
The parallels to the American revolution are much lighter than those between American history and the first book. The plotting is uneven, some characters you wish you could see again are removed too soon, and some story sequences, while unforgettable, are also largely out of place. Despite all of that, I came out of the book at the other end largely satisfied with my time back in Coyote. It didn’t follow through on all the promise of the first book, but what it did deliver was ultimately a convincing portrait of a world in need of revolution, and an exciting struggle from the people who make it happen.

STAR RATING: (3 & 1/2 Stars)

Three and One-Half Stars

For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.

Spoiler Talk:

The religious cult story was baffling. I didn’t know whether to laugh at it, feel admiration or feel disgust. Well, I settled on disgust near the end. Cannibalism in the wilderness and the treason of trust will do that to you. Rev. Zoltan Shirow was ultimately a monster, though at times I felt pity for him. The story evoked a storm of emotions across the spectrum, and I suspect it was meant to do so. Greer and Ben’s tragic part in the whole sordid tale was kind of heartbreaking. To see her and Zoltan show up again near the end of the book seemed out of place, needless, and dragging out a point that did not need extrapolating on. I would have preferred to leave their fates after the disastrous trip through the wilderness a mystery, and left Zoltan to become a legend.

Savant Castro’s demise was pretty chilling and fascinating, as was his surprising return. I hope there is some exploration of his place in (or out) of society in the future. It certainly seems there is no getting rid of him at any rate.

The demise of the Alabama was sad. Clever writing, but sad. I mostly wish they could have salvaged Gillis’ painting before it’s untimely demise, but ultimately freedom is more important than a work of art. And ouch, ouch it hurt to say that.

Robert Lee’s death wasn’t surprising, but it was well done, and a great symbol of what was lost in the rebellion, as well as what such a high price gained. In many ways, the twin loss of the Alabama and Lee was a way of shaking lose the last true bindings to the old world and their old lives. This is no longer just a colony, this is a civilization, an independent nation, sovereign.

The most disappointing death was that of Tom Shapiro. He essentially gets a cameo as a corpse. Not being able to get much time with him is bad enough, but then they go and kill him off screen. A tragic end to one of the early stalwarts of the new world.

The volcano blowing was neat. No getting around that. I didn’t see it coming. Well, I guess I did once they said there was a volcano. You don’t lay a Chekhov’s gun, cannon rather, that prominently without shooting it. But they placed that information out there late, which made it very much a last minute surprise.


One thought on ““Coyote Rising” by Allen Steele – Review – Science Fiction

  1. glenchen says:

    Great review. As a fan of historical fiction, I also saw the parallels with the American Revolution, and savored them. Glad you got through the trilogy.

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