Balshazzars Serpent

Jack L. Chalker, Author
Jack L. Chalker, Author Baen Books $22 (304p) ISBN 978-0-671-57880-0
Mass Market Paperbound - 320 pages - 978-0-671-31999-1
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Told as a kind of mythic moral tale, this far-future, action-oriented SF novel, set in an era of space exploration gone awry, opens with this story: for many years, travelers could journey between Earth and a far-away universe by way of a wormhole. Then the wormhole disappeared, leaving a generation of travelers stranded. A long time passed; the stranded invented their own myths and divided themselves into two factions: the pirates and the religious. Both are now seeking three illusive planets, said to be rich in treasure and alien artifacts, that a prophet long ago called the Three Kings. On a routine missionary expedition, the interstellar evangelist ship Mountain (moved by faith)--led by the unorthodox, devout and shrewd Dr. Karl Woodward--makes a promising discovery. Arriving on a planet, Mountain missionaries encounter a group of apparently friendly and cooperative colonists. But it turns out that they are secretly under the control of a refugee band of pirates led by one Captain Sapenza, who attacks the Mountain, only to find that his weapons are no match for the Faithful. In return for mercy, Sapenza gives Woodward directions to the Three Kings, and with the hardiest of the faithful aboard, Mountain travels the perilous path of a wild wormhole to Balshazzar, an Eden-like planet. There's a serpent in this Eden, an alien super-intelligence who challenges Woodward to a contest. Obviously intended to launch a series, this novel is nothing to get excited about: Chalker (Ghost of the Well of Souls, etc.) uses a well-worn plot, rushes past interesting people and places and occasionally slows the pacing with expository lumps. The book does contain some unusual theological explorations but, overall, its intelligence outshines its narrative prowess. (Aug.)
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