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Underdogs prevail, even on distant planets.

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By Rachel Hartigan Shea
Sunday, January 11, 2009

EON: DRAGONEYE REBORN By Alison Goodman Viking. 531 pp. $19.99

Just when you thought it was safe to look to the skies, another dragon book comes flying out. Luckily, the dragons in Eon aren't visible to most people, and the book is a good one.

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In the Empire of the Celestial Dragons, a young boy named Eon is training to become a Dragoneye, a warrior who is paired with one of the 12 dragons, elemental beings who correspond to the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Each Dragoneye is charged with channeling a dragon's energy to protect the land from natural and human catastrophes. Eon's odds of being chosen by a dragon to be its Dragoneye are low: He is lame; more important, "he" is a she. In this culture -- an artful pastiche of all things Asian -- "women have no place in the world of the dragon magic. It is said they bring corruption to the art." If Eon's true gender is discovered, she and her master and all of her master's household will be killed.

Eon, whose real name is Eona, soon finds herself enmeshed in a power struggle between the emperor and his warlord brother, while a rogue Dragoneye aims to take over the empire by manipulating Eona's singular ability to see all of the dragons at once. Quickly paced and full of surprising twists, Eon transcends standard fantasy fare because author Alison Goodman focuses on the intrigue -- poison, secret tunnels, rebellious eunuchs -- in the lush imperial palace, and on the way this young girl eventually realizes that she must embrace her female self, her "Moon energy," in order to prevail.

THE ENGINE'S CHILD By Holly Phillips Del Rey. 386 pp. Paperback, $15

Another scrappy heroine dominates this gloomy fantasy. And she, too, has powers far beyond her station.

Generations ago, a society was expelled from its homeland. Nobody remembers why exactly, but the backward-looking rulers and priests who dominate the island where the exiles settled blame technology and severely limit its use. Electricity becomes the source of all power, literally and politically, and is doled out only to the deserving.

Naturally, the undeserving poor are desperate for power and to get out of the Tidal, "the cankerous mass of the slum at the water's edge." They will have to fight: The island is on "the brink of irredeemable disaster [from] the pressures of crowding, poverty, and imminent starvation," yet exploration of the vast seas surrounding it is forbidden.

Moth, born in the Tidal but now studying for the priesthood, is stealing electricity and harnessing the world's spirit, the "mundab," to build an engine for an ocean-going vessel. But her project hurries the island's collapse by inadvertently destroying the cable that brings power to the Dubai-like towers where the privileged live offshore and by releasing an army of "manifests," part-machines and part-ghosts who skitter through the night terrifying the island's inhabitants. Rain falls constantly in this richly imaginative novel -- everyone fears it is punishment for their sins -- and occasionally the plot gets mired in the resulting muck. But the characters, especially the prevaricating, rebellious Moth, propel the story to higher ground.

THE SUICIDE COLLECTORS By David Oppegaard St. Martin's. 294 pp. $23.95

How will the world end? In fire rather than ice, as Robert Frost wrote? With a whimper rather than a bang, as T.S. Eliot predicted? In The Suicide Collectors, David Oppegaard opts for horribly individualized versions of all four deaths. He suggests that life on earth will wind down with "the Despair," as a plague of suicides -- by poison, guns, tall buildings, speeding cars, hanging ropes and many more disturbingly creative methods -- spreads throughout the world.

Five years after the Despair begins, Norman and Pops are the last living residents of their abandoned Florida town, which "was covered in a furry coat of moss . . . wooden walls decaying like the skin of a gangrenous sailor." But they must flee because Norman has killed a Collector, a member of the mysterious group that confiscates the bodies of the suicides, to what end no one knows. Drifters claim that a scientist in Seattle has found a cure for the Despair, so Norman and Pops hop into a plane that the resourceful Pops has restored and set out across the country. Their journey is thwarted at every turn, though, because the Collectors have put a bounty of "five hundred pounds of dried venison and twenty functioning generators" on Norman's head, a mighty tempting reward when civilization has collapsed.

While The Suicide Collectors has the flippant dialogue and nonstop thrills of an action movie, Oppegaard addresses the emotional costs of suicide seriously. "Once someone you loved killed himself," he writes, "a new, dark trail of thought had been cut for you to follow. . . . Suicide survivors could, if they weren't careful, swiftly find themselves at the end of that freshly blazed trail, standing with one foot in life and one in death." Suicide is catching. As always with the best science fiction, The Suicide Collectors takes a real-world phenomenon to its logical conclusion.

THE JANUARY DANCER By Michael Flynn Tor. 350 pp. $24.95

In Eifelheim, Michael Flynn's previous novel, a medieval priest encounters aliens during the time of the plague. In The January Dancer, his latest book, Flynn implants the style of medieval storytelling into an old-fashioned space opera.

At a seedy bar on the planet Jehovah, "a major interchange of Electric Avenue, that great slipstreamed superhighway that binds the stars," a harper seeks out a "scarred man" to tell her the old story of the "Dancer . . . a twisting melody that never quite resolves." She claims to want to make it into a ballad of her own, though neither she nor the scarred man appear to be telling the truth.

The Dancer is a "clever little prehuman statue," she learns, which was discovered on an uninhabited planet by the hapless crew of a space freighter and has been wreaking havoc ever since. Turns out the statue grants its bearer the ability to command obedience, though much like Tolkien's ring, it has an agenda of its own. Several people -- including "a thief, a guerilla, and [a] man that no one sees" -- join forces to capture the Dancer, though the scarred storyteller makes clear that they will all betray each other by story's end.

The characters zip through so many worlds that it's hard to keep track of them, but Flynn includes enough clever references to the long-abandoned Earth to keep the journey amusing. (Ships travel, for instance, "from the Champs Elysées to the Yellow Brick, from the Silk Road to the Grand Trunk.") The balladic framework can be heavy-handed at times, but it adds a mythical quality to what could have been run-of-the-mill space fantasy. ·

Rachel Hartigan Shea is the deputy editor of Book World.

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