When it comes to gloms, for sheer numbers my all-time biggest is Jayne Ann Krentz in all her incarnations, including Jayne Castle. I haven’t enjoyed her most recent work as much, however, and I dearly hoped that After Dark would reverse that trend. Sadly, it didn’t.
After Dark wants to be speculative fiction, mystery, and romance all rolled in one, and it achieves none of these goals very well. I have a pet theory that SF focuses on setting, mystery focuses on plot, and romance focuses on character. It’s a lot to cram in, and what can you say when the plot, setting, and characters are all mediocre?
Like Amaryllis, Zinnia, and Orchid, this has a “humans traveled beyond the Curtain, got stuck, and developed psychic powers” setting, but it’s not the same world or powers as that earlier series. Since the link was never made clear, I found the similarities confusing at first.
The book is set on planet Harmony, where the descendants of marooned Earth people have replaced conventional electric power with psychic energy they can focus through small pieces of amber. Harmony features many remnants of a lost and apparently malevolent alien civilization which left all of its ruins festooned with illusion traps and stray energy blobs called ghosts. Lydia Smith’s psychic talents make her a natural at unraveling the traps, so she is a para-archaeologist. Businessman Emmett London is good at controlling the stray energy fields, so he’s a powerful but retired “ghost hunter.”
Emmett has hired Lydia to trace a stolen Earth artifact of his, a mysterious Cabinet of Curiosities which, though intriguing, has virtually no relevance to the rest of the plot. Lydia agrees because she’s struggling to become an independent consultant now that she’s been blackballed from academia because she had the misfortune to fall into an illusion trap and survive. Now, none of her ivory tower buddies believe she’s stable enough to be reliable and she’s determined to prove them wrong.
Emmett is tracking the cabinet because it’s a link to his missing nephew, and he wants Lydia for her connection to the disreputable dealer who bought the cabinet. As the book begins they find the crooked dealer dead in Lydia’s museum, but Emmett hires her anyway. It’s immediately apparent that the situation is more serious than Emmett realized, but Lydia won’t let him fire her for her own protection because of her drive to prove herself.
As mysteries go, the plotting is pretty insubstantial. It bumbles along and every time an intriguing idea surfaces – like the cabinet, or Emmett’s mysterious ancestry – it quickly vanishes without trace and leaves a more pedestrian plot behind. Weak mysteries are often forgivable in romances because the mystery is a backdrop for the main characters’ interactions, but these characters are very thin. The attraction between them is never convincing, and the romance never heats up past tepid. Emmett knows he wants Lydia, but it’s never clear why. Lydia is supposed to be intelligent, but this is belied by her prejudices. Ghost-hunters have a bad image on Harmony, part Crocodile Dundee and part Godfather. But Lydia is resolutely incapable of seeing Emmett for his own merit, and even after he’s saved her life a dozen times she’s still judging him by his profession. I’m no fan of bigoted heroines, and Lydia never persuaded me she was anything but.
She might have been able to if the speculative fiction aspect was better and gave her prejudice more background, because this book seems to want to be SF more than it wants to be romance. While there’s a smattering of inventiveness – I particularly liked Lydia’s pet “dust bunny” – all of the SF is on the surface.
I don’t have the patience for SF unless it is very good, so I’m not familiar with the standards for average SF. I doubt this makes the cut. At its heart, SF is about creating worlds and charting new territories of outer and/or inner-space. It teaches us something about what it means to be human by contrasting it with another alternative. Harmony’s civilization is all surface and no depth. For example, thanks to amber, the citizens of Harmony in essence power their lives with perpetual motion machines. Such a civilization should be radically different from our own, but these differences are never explored. All of Harmony is obsessed with the alien antiquities market, but there’s no compelling reason for it other than the vague pursuit of knowledge. Well and good, but there should be stronger justification. And where do the Harmonians get their amber? Alien pine trees? We’ll never know.
Despite the weaknesses, this is not a terrible read. This author is always readable, and if you’ve never read her before you may enjoy this book quite well, since it has the solid writing and flashes of wit that typify her work. But it lacks the inventiveness, solid humor, and passion of her best books, which for me include Deception as Amanda Quick, Hidden Talents as Jayne Ann Krentz, and Zinnia as Jayne Castle.
For fellow fans of this author who have been disappointed of late, I’m sorry to report that this book does not reverse the trend. But I love this author when she’s at the top of her form, and I’ll keep reading her in the hopes that the old magic returns or that new magic appears.