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Demon of Undoing by Andrea I. Alton3 stars

Buy from IndieBoundThough it looks like a brazen imitation of C. J. Cherryh’s Chanur novels (an impression hightened by an unfortunate cover painting so amateurish it makes Darrell K. Sweet look like Vermeer), Demon of Undoing is no knockoff, nor is it a stinker. The story is actually quite a decently-written adventure set on an alien world which was, at one point in its history, visited by humans, whose contact with the highly clannish and warlike native Imkairans spawned much strife amongst various clans. Upset at having, so to speak, violated the prime directive, the humans left, vanishing into Imkairan legend. They are now known as Demons of Undoing, all-purpose boogeymen, their damaging influence upon indigenous culture perhaps exaggerated by the passage of time but nonetheless fearsome to the ritual-steeped Imkairan society.

Fenobar is an Imkairan of the Fenirri clan who has risen to a fairly respectable rank in military service by virtue of his birthright. Still, because he’s somewhat disabled by a bad arm, he is regarded with disdain by his peers. As a form of rebellion, Fenobar has taken an “allegiance” — a sort of private holy ritual among the Imkairans by which warriors pledge themselves to a god for protection — with the image of a human, a Demon of Undoing, painted on the back of his shield. When the Fenirri are humiliated in battle, Fenobar is charged with conveying a relic sacred to his clan to a safe location, but he and his retinue are waylaid on their journey by a rival clan. Fenobar manages to avoid capture and pursues the surviving Fenirri in the hope of freeing them and the relic, a massive obsidian battleaxe, from their captors. But as he sneaks into the enemy camp and prepares to free his fellows, what does Fenobar stumble upon but a captive human. And so, freeing the human as well as the other Fenirri, Fenobar and company are pursued doggedly through the wilderness as they desperately try to reach a safe haven.

Demon of Undoing suffers from some slow stretches that drag out the action. In fact, the novel’s pace as a whole is somewhat languid. But it’s never dull. In Fenobar, Alton has created a likable, sympathetic character. His relationship to the human Sig, particularly the amusing way he continually expects Sig to conform to myths about human behavior, is funny and appealing. The best scenes in the book detail their growing friendship. Alton’s depiction of the militaristic and clannish Imkairan society is generally plausible, too, though I doubt the wisdom of battle helmets that leave an open space at the top to enable the Imkairans’ class-identifying hairy crests to show through (seems like a prime target for a sword or axe-blow to me). As for the Imkairans as a whole... true, these aliens don’t seem all that alien, which means hard-science purists who subscribe to the notion that convincing aliens should be as unhuman as possible probably won’t take to this. 

And though Demon of Undoing is not faux Cherryh, I suspect Alton is a Cherryh fan, and that Cherryh’s audience is the audience to whom Alton hopes her little tale will appeal. The highly anthropomorphic Imkairans do seem as if they’d fit in well with any species in Cherryh’s imaginative menagerie. It would have been nice to see how Alton’s career might have progressed following this credible debut, but sadly, like so many midlisters, she seems to have faded quietly away.