I tend to think, for no obvious reason, that the books an author wrote before I started reading them are their “early works” and therefore not all that good. As I’m increasingly finding out, this isn’t necessarily the case — Dave Duncan’s West of January , for instance, is pretty darn solid.
What it mostly is, though, is different from Duncan’s other stuff. Duncan these days is a straight (and increasingly conventional) fantasist; but like Shadow (another one of Duncan’s oddly-surprisingly-to-me good early works) this is one of those low-tech lost-colony SF novels. But where Shadow, with its giant intelligent eagles, seemed Pern-inspired, West of January feels more like Kirstein’s Outskirter novels. The world here has climatic issues, a handful of different primitive cultures, and higher-tech “angels”; the protagonist starts out in a nomadic herding tribe, but it’s safe to say he doesn’t stay there.
In fact, he doesn’t stay much of anywhere, as he ends up going on one of those every-spot-on-the-map tours of the world that are so endemic to fantasy. That overstuffed plotting combined with a main character who’s too omni-competent to be true (and whose personality flaws aren’t drawn completely convincingly) keep this from being a great book. But, paradoxically, they do make it a fun one.
Because, when it comes down to it, books where super-cool people explore vast and diverse worlds are pretty much the heart of the light adventure fiction genre; and if Duncan wasn’t yet an old pro at that subgenre when he wrote this book, he was quickly establishing some solid credentials. If this isn’t a book that’s going to make any awards lists, it’s nevertheless also a book that’s going to keep you reading late.