Dancer of the Sixth, Michelle Shirey Crean (1993)
Review by Ian Sales
Prominent on the front cover of this massmarket paperback is the phrase “Del Rey Discovery”. This does suggest the publisher had high hopes for Crean. Sadly, Dancer of the Sixth is her only piece of fiction ever to see print. And yet perhaps it’s not entirely difficult to understand why.
The Dancer of the title is Auglaize DeWellesthar, a pilot in the Fourth Service. Or rather, she was. She was captured by the Confederacy’s enemies, the Karranganthians, during the battle later known as the Lioth Massacre, tortured and left for dead. Fortunately for her, she was found by members of the Sixth Service, who used their advanced medical technology to rebuild her in body and mind. Now, a supposed victim of the war, she works under her nom de métier as a spy during the years of uneasy peace following the war.
That is, until one day, she witnesses an aircraft of the visiting Fourth Service Interplanetary Precision Aerial Demonstration Team leave a practice formation and almost crash near her. When the pilot exits the aircraft, Dancer finds herself confronted by… herself. The pilot proves to be Dancer’s cousin, Antonia, who has used her resemblance to Dancer to take her place in the Fourth Service. However, all is not well with the Aerial Demonstration Team, or aboard the starship in which it travels from world to world. The Team’s itinerary suspiciously visits only backwater worlds, such as O’Brian’s Stake (which is where Dancer is currently working). The new colonel behaves more like a villain than the commander of a prestigious display team. And it also seems the Team pilots have been drugged or brainwashed… So Dancer takes Antonia’s place – or rather, reclaims her own real identity temporarily – and goes aboard the Team’s starship to investigate.
Dancer of the Sixth is an odd mix of romance and brutality. Dancer’s recovery after the torture is helped by her romantic attachment to her carer. But he disappears and she later attaches her affections to the Sixth Service’s commander, Michael. But their relationship remains unrequited. Much of this is detailed in the extended flashback which comprises the middle third of the book. It is the least interesting part of the novel.
Either side of this is the story set on O’Brian’s Stake. Dancer belongs to a long line of sf competent women characters; and it shows in the way she seems to take charge of every scene in which she appears. Yet this is also a carefully-designed function of her back-history. The Confederacy possesses six “services”, though only the last three are described – the Fourth, which operates aircraft and fighters; the Fifth, which crews and maintains the starships; and the secretive Sixth, which functions as a near-mythical secret service. The Sixth is also staffed almost entirely by Auryx, who are the products of a genetic engineering experiment generations past in empathy and telepathy (but the talents are now so weak, they’re almost useless). The Auryx are feared by both the Confederacy and the Karranganthians but, as Dancer discovers, they’re actually very competent and quite cuddly.
The villains of the piece, on the other hand, are nasty through and through. Crean’s husband was in the USAF, and it’s hard not to recast the Confederacy as the US (and the Auryx some noble super-competent group within it), and the Karranganthians as the USSR. Much of the enemy’s actions sound like the worst sort of propaganda, making them out to be a cross between pantomime villains and war criminals. It’s this brutality which sits oddly with the romance which forms the gooey soft centre of Dancer of the Sixth. It makes the novel neither one thing nor the other: it is not a romance novel masquerading as science fiction, it is not science fiction with a greater than normal romantic content. It means that, while the novel has its moments, the overall effect is somewhat like the orange cream in a box of chocolates.