From her Goodreads entry:
J. A. McLachlan is the author of a short story collection, CONNECTIONS (Pandora Press) and two College texts on Professional Ethics (Pearson-Prentice Hall). But science fiction is her first love, a genre she's been reading all her life. Walls of Wind was her first published SF novel. She has two young adult science fiction novels, The Occasional Diamond Thief and The Salarian Desert Game (EDGE SF&F Publishing).
Of course, her family didn’t see fit to provide for her continuing education. Kia has to do that herself, with one little jewel theft that she assumes will have no repercussions for her future. Ha!
A propensity for light cat burglary is just the sort of peccadillo the Order of Universal Benevolence can use to strong-arm a sixteen-year-old student into *volunteering* to assist one of the Select on a mission to the isolationist world Malem. The Order isn’t all stick and no carrot—they also will take care of Kia’s mother’s recent medical expenses—but it’s clear that the consequence of saying no to the Order would be exposure as a thief. Better to take the risk of travelling to a hostile world.
Kia has another reason to agree. Her talent for languages is one of two legacies her father left her. The other is a diamond from Malem: a religious icon her father gave her as he was dying. Non-Malemese have no business owning such icons. How her father acquired the diamond on his one ill-fated trip to Malem is a mystery Kia would like to solve.
What she finds on Malem is an autocratic world with good reason to distrust outsiders, a community still suffering outbreaks of the same lethal disease that ultimately killed her father. A disease the suspicious Malemese know was deliberately introduced to Malem by seeming innocents a lot like Kia and her Select minder...
But first! A digression. Malem is an example of something that’s common in SF but not in the real world. It’s a monoculture. On Earth, maintaining a monoculture takes a fair amount of work, preventing outsiders from moving in and preventing new groups from popping up. In SF, single-culture worlds are common enough to have a slang term for them, Planet of Hats. In Malem’s case, the community seems to be comparatively young and there are nicer worlds out there (dissidents can leave rather than foment diversity and discord, although people leaving Malem is so rare as to be worthy of comment). It’s still kind of odd that they’re doing a better job of maintaining uniformity than the old Plymouth Colony.
Hermit kingdoms often seem unduly paranoid and xenophobic to outsiders. In the case of Malem, their paranoia is based at least in part on fact: off-worlders did in fact deliberately spread an extremely lethal disease to Malem. It’s not unreasonable to be suspicious towards plague-spreaders and their kin. The Order of Universal Benevolence might argue they are just there to help … but how can the people on Malem know the OUB didn’t execute the bio-terrorism so that the Order could then swoop in and gain public support by helping the survivors?
It may be that later books will prove that the powerful, well-connected Order is in fact actually benevolent. However, the fact that teenaged Kia has been blackmailed into joining an expedition to a dangerous planet suggests that any benevolence is subtle and long term. Not focused on the well-being of students who can serve as useful tools, in other words.
Kia’s situation as outcast turned criminal in pursuit of a better life recalls various Andre Norton novels. I was also reminded of Sylvia Engdahl’s young adult novels. While the people she meets do not seem particularly trustworthy, Kia is at least sympathetic. I am curious to find out where the author takes the story in the second volume.
Please direct corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.