Last Dance of the Phoenix, by James R. Lane – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Last Dance of the Phoenix, by James R. Lane
Raleigh, NC, Lulu Press, August 2016, trade paperback $14.99 (254 pages), Kindle $2.51.
This s-f novel is set in the near future. Thomas Barnes has an Artificial Intelligence in his home, but he also wears a dark blue NRA ball cap, eats at a McDonald’s, drives on Florida’s Highway I-95, drinks Gatorade, and is familiar with the TV program Final Jeopardy.
Two years previously, Earth was discovered by aliens (in flying saucers) and welcomed into the galactic community. The four spacegoing species of aliens that humans meet just happen to look like anthropomorphic foxes, cheetahs, otters, and rabbits.
Convenient? Maybe too convenient? Barnes thinks so.
“No bug-eyed monsters, no giant slugs, spiders, dragons, demons, birds – nothing else. Aliens that didn’t seem so alien after all, apparently guaranteed not to terribly upset ape-based humanity’s rabid xenophobia. To me and a lot of others it just seemed too damned pat. Somebody – or something – had to have engineered all this. Cute.” (p. 10)
Barnes has just returned to Jacksonville, Florida from traveling to the Yularian (fox) home world after having been rejuvenated. This was an experiment. The (expensive) Yularian rejuvenation process is well-known to them, but nobody was sure whether it would work on humans, so they selected Barnes to be their guinea pig. They chose him because he was famous (a very popular science-fiction author whose stories included friendly aliens) and now about to die of old age. He went to their planet in one of their FTL ships, and was returned to Jacksonville’s new spaceport when it seems to be a success.
Barnes is supposed to have the Yularian elderly doctor who supervised his rejuvenation come to Earth with him, to spend three months making sure his rejuvenation remains successful. Instead he is met by L’raan, a pretty (if you like foxes) young vixen who is one of Dr. N’looma’s graduate students. A last-minute family emergency has prevented Dr. N’looma from coming to Earth, and L’raan has been chosen to replace her. Barnes quickly figures out that all the other Yularians on the project refused to come to Earth, and L’raan, the juniormost, was stuck with it. She also seems to be horribly sick. The two are assured by the Yularian embassy that it’s the affects of FTL travel and that she’ll recover in a couple of days. Barnes suspects that she’s been poisoned – and that whoever is trying to kill her will also kill him to make it look like the rejuvenation process went wrong.
What follows is a James Bond scenario with Barnes as the invincible agent and L’raan as the beautiful (but furry) girl whom he protects.
“‘The first thing is, what information you know about me isn’t all that wrong,’ I stated, ‘but there are a few key elements missing.’
‘Like me,’ Art said, smiling. ‘Tom’s novels are quite popular with a lot of scientists and government officials, and over the years he made a number of, shall we say, ‘influential’ friends and contacts in some fairly important agencies, including those agencies that don’t have publicly-known names. After your people contacted humanity and eventually made us the rejuvenation offer, some of us in a few of those agencies feared that something unpleasant might be in the plans before all of this was over.’” (pgs. 71-72)
Barnes has been a secret agent for the U.S. government all along. It’s also how he could recognize that L’raan had been poisoned instead of just being sick. He deduces that her poisoners are other foxes in the nearby Yularian embassy, so he’s prepared when his home is attacked at night by alien assassin drones. L’raan, who feels betrayed by her own people, confirms that they are Yularian military technology. Barnes calls in Art Goldman and his military research team; they report what’s happening to the U.S. government; and Barnes and L’raan are invited to help the government investigate what’s going on.
A comic inconvenience is that the Yularian scientists enhanced and altered Barnes’ sense of smell when they rejuvenated him. L’raan happens to be going through one of her periods of heat. Normally this wouldn’t be noticed by humans except as a slightly increased vulpine muskiness. But to Barnes, L’raan may look sexy (if you’re into foxes) but she stinks to high heaven!
Are the assassins who are after Barnes and L’raan from the Yularian government, or from a faction within it that their government is innocent of? Or have some of the local Yularians sold out to either the Dralorians (otters), the Eelon (cheetahs), or the Ar’kaa (rabbits)? Is it an anti-human secret society that is against just Barnes and the Yularians who work with him, or do the villains have a larger and more ominous goal?
“‘Ambassador D’naad,’ I began, ‘my friends here and I, along with certain high-ranking governmental and military officials here on Earth, are convinced that this…campaign…against us is not the work of one person, or even a small group of people. What we first thought to be a possible political ploy or power struggle is now, we feel, something more akin to a move toward genocide, of who and by whom we don’t yet know. […] But I can tell you with certainty that we need your help. Hopefully we still have time to defuse the situation, but that time is no doubt growing short, and we’re certain it will eventually run out.’” (p. 133)
As matters grow more dramatic, Tom and representatives of all four aliens are invited as guests to the Paws’N’Claws furry convention, and are publicly attacked there by the mysterious enemy who doesn’t care how many fursuiters are collateral victims.
Who is the enemy of the humans? The foxes? The cheetahs? The otters? The rabbits? Or – something else?
Last Dance of the Phoenix (cover by Eugene Arenhaus) is a blend of current military technology (Art calls an Army AH-64A Apache battle helicopter to land on Tom’s lawn) and futuristic alien science (the spaceships, the FTL drive, the rejuvenation process, the Yularian interstellar videophone). It feels like there’s a bit of Mary Sue here – “James R. Lane is a retired Florida photojournalist” and obviously a s-f writer, who is probably ripe for rejuvenation – but on the whole, this is a (slightly wordy) clever near-future espionage-action thriller featuring a young-again hero that furry fans will really identify with, and villains whose identities you are almost guaranteed to not guess in advance.