“Deehabta’s Song” by Stephen Alder

Deehabta’s Song

Stephen Alder
iUniverse (2020)
ISBN: 9781663211644
Reviewed by Tim Schueler for Reader Views (08/2021)

“Deehabta’s Song” chronicles what starts as the day-to-day life of Krissa, a 60-year-old librarian by day who is a martial arts guru/neighborhood citizen’s watch leader at night. Krissa lives on the planet Roon thirty years after the end of an interplanetary war with a neighboring planet, Caderyn. Roon is ruled by an empire which unsuccessfully attempted to annex Caderyn. After a long war, the peace treaty has softened relationships between the two planets, but tension still exists. One requirement of the peace treaty was that a tribe of warriors on Caderyn called the Onye—who fought fiercely with a specialized weapon unique to them—be heavily suppressed, lest they threaten the empire in the future. 

Krissa, mild-mannered but definitely no pushover, is set to retire from the library. Recent mental issues, however, including strange dreams, threaten to knock her life off-kilter. Through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, we learn that unknown to her, Krissa’s middleclass life is actually scripted by a government entity specifically to suppress a natural talent dangerous to the empire. Through the introduction of a new roommate, Jo, and some helpful local police, Krissa begins to seek treatment for her mental issues which reveals an interplanetary conspiracy.

The general premise for “Deehabta’s Song” had a lot of potential: the idea of identity manipulation; rather than imprison or execute an adversary, change who they think they are. Also, the idea of music as a weapon was interesting. However, given that most stories have a beginning, middle, and an end (although not necessarily in that order), this novel had a lot of “ending” and “beginning” but was slim on “middle.” The reader is more or less forced to take the word of the characters when they say things happened, rather than be treated to witnessing the  “middle” detail. Readers like me want a good look behind the curtain to see how plot element B is dependent on element A. If A and B are developed as mini-stories themselves, so much the better. It’s okay to present the story in back-and-forth time elements, but somehow a significant chunk of mid-plot was missing.

The backstory buildup of the first few chapters was delivered in a useful way: Krissa’s public transportation commute from home to the library, a mini-journey where the reader learns some planet Roon basics. The pacing of the novel was very deliberate, however. Though it did pick up, particularly with the interplanetary space journey, the novel started slowly and was heavy on ancillary detail, some of which was repetitious—coffee breaks, meals, noshing, watching TV. Some detail, e.g., on which table a communication device was placed, was very specific but did not support the story or become relevant later.

Much information was conveyed through dialog, which was good, but some of it seemed overly charged, using a lot of exclamation marks. It was also a bit too casual, which this reader found distracting. There were a lot of difficult names to memorize (some characters had multiple identities as well) so keeping track of the players, some of whom appeared only briefly, started resembling work. There were also a few statements that rang false. An example is “. . . she sees in Krissa’s eyes a wild fury that is almost frightening.” This reader considers wild fury to be very frightening. Elimination of the “leech” word “almost” would give the phrase its fully deserved punch.

It is notable that Mr. Alder’s background as a technical editor shined throughout the novel; there were no grammatical or spelling errors to slow the reader down. His command of English is solid, which is not always guaranteed in a first novel.

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