1986’s Skeen’s Leap is the first volume in Jo Clayton’s Skeen trilogy.
Skeen is her own creation, from her name to her career as a star-faring grave robber, looting the relics of ancient civilizations for her own enrichment. It’s a heartwarming tale of personal re-invention.
Or it was, until Skeen’s lover Tibo stole her starship and marooned Skeen on Kildun Aalda. Although the authorities do not know who Skeen really is, it’s only a matter of time before she ends up in prison or dead.
Happily, there is a third option.
A sot’s drunken rambling hints at forgotten treasure. Lacking other resources, Skeen follows up on the lead. She finds a remarkable asset, a gate between Kildun Aalda and another world, one no doubt created by one of the many races to briefly possess Kildun Aalda. Reason: escape from occasional planet-searing sun flares. As Skeen discovers, the gate is fully functional.
Once at her destination, Skeen discovers the gate is currently in one-way mode, occasionally opening when conditions are right on Kildun Aalda but remaining steadfastly closed from the other side. Skeen is trapped, at least until she can find someone who understands how to activate the gate from her current side and convince them to share that information. Step one: make local allies.
Hired to free a slave named Timka by Timka’s sister Telka, Skeen only asks the right questions after it’s too late. Timka isn’t a slave and Telka isn’t concerned for her well-being. Cunning keeps Skeen and Timka alive but prudence dictates relocating to distant Tunal Lumat; even that may not be enough, because the people she has inadvertently crossed have long reach and longer memories. At least she has an ally of sorts in shape-shifting Timka.
Each wave of newcomers from Kildun Aalda has only the high tech devices they were carrying when they fled through the gate and the information between their ears. As machinery wears out, societies slowly revert to a lower level of technology. To combat this, Tunal Lumat is a community of scholars, gathering and preserving all of the information that comes their way. Among the details they remember: the identity of the beings responsible for the gates: the ancient Ykx.
What nobody knows is how to find the Ykx. Or even if any are still alive.
I have used the original cover because I find the current one uninspired.
I cannot help but think that Skeen’s habit of acquiring traveling companions works against her. She has five before the book is a third done, four of whom have little utility other than as bed partners. Sheen’s history gives her good reason to be extremely wary of other people. She seems to think she is. Her repetitive acquisition of companions suggests otherwise.
Judging by the books Amazon pitched to me because I tracked down a link for Skeen’s Leap, Clayton is seen as an Andre Norton lookalike. Well, there is the matter of a low-status, criminally inclined protagonist contending against a hostile universe, plus the rise and fall of alien civilizations and space-time-spanning gates. But Norton never ever wrote as much sexy time as Clayton does in this book.
Speaking of sex, the issue of birth control is acknowledged. Despite all the sex she has, Skeen does not get pregnant and that’s not by accident1. Birth control (and what happens if it fails) is something Clayton touches on in her other works, so it is in no way a surprise to see it here.
One unconventional element in the book: chapter headings like
HERE WE ARE IN ATSILA VANA, ANOTHER LEG OF THE QUEST COMPLETED. DON’T EXPECT MUCH, THESE THINGS ARE ALWAYS MORE COMPLICATED THAN THEY FIRST SEEM.
JUST ABOUT EVERYONE WHO TALKS TO ASPIRING WRITERS SAYS SHOW, DON’T TELL; GOOD ENOUGH ADVICE, BUT YOU DON’T WANT TO LOOK ON IT AS HOLY WRIT. AS SKEEN MIGHT SAY, HAVING A RULE IS SUFFICIENT EXCUSE FOR BREAKING IT. NOW AND THEN THOUGH, THERE’S A LOVELY, COMFORTABLE DELIGHT IN CONFORMING TO TRITE OLD RULES; YOU CAN FEEL VIRTUOUS AND ENJOY THE HELL OUT OF YOURSELF AT THE SAME TIME.
HERE’S ONE OF SKEEN’S STORIES, THE ONE THAT GOT HER THE NAME SHE WANTED.
All this seems to be commentary from Clayton herself. who seems to have grown tired of writing tedious narrative bridges and just cut to the chase. She seems to be having fun, which is good since she deserved more fun than she actually got at the end of her life.
Skeen’s Leap moves along nicely enough, although Skeen’s charming inability to resist distractions provides her with a number of side-quests. Alas, it is very clear that Clayton intended this as a trilogy from the beginning. Inquisitive Skeen does find some of the answers she needs, but what she learns does not provide her with a final resolution. Presumably that is a matter for the next two books in the series.
1: It does help that many of the intelligent species present are attractive to each other but in no way inter-fertile.