I’ve gone on record as saying one of my favourite fantasy series is MacAvoy’s trilogy comprising The Lens of the World, King of the Dead and The Winter of the Wolf (vt US The Belly of the Wolf), so I had reasonably high expectations of her space opera, The Third Eagle. Sadly, they were not met.
The Third Eagle is a light-hearted picaresque novel which only develops a plot in its final third. The “third eagle” of the title is a tattoo earned by members of the Clan Wacaan, Native American-derived warriors, who live and work as bodyguards and assassins on the backwater world of Neunacht. Wanbli Elf Darter is the youngest ever Wacaan to earn his third eagle. After falling out with his T’chisetti employer (the T’chisetti are the land-owners on Neunacht), Wanbli leaves his home world with the vague intention of fulfiling a dream. He has long been a fan of broadcast melodramas, “shimmers”, and wants to become an actor.
The novel is subtitled “Lessons along a minor string”, which refers to the mode of interstellar travel in the universe of the story. Starships can only travel along “strings” and, as a result, only those worlds close to strings can be colonised. So, despite the vast number of planets in the galaxy, land is still at a premium. This has repercussions later in the novel.
After a series of adventures, which involve befriending an alien mathematical genius, becoming the lover of a member of powerful trading and industry family, working as a stuntman in the “shimmer” industry, and living aboard a ship of alien prostitutes, Wanbli finds himself aboard the Commitment, a ship of “revivalists”. And this is where the plot kicks into action.
The revivalists are the survivors of generation starships sent out centuries before. There are still thousands of such sleeper ships drifting through space. The crew of the Commitment hunt these down and decant the frozen people aboard. Except there’s nowhere for these people to go, so they only actually bring back to life a handful. The rest they kill. When Wanbli learns this, he is horrified.
During his travels, Wanbli had also learnt that the space station Neunacht had been paying on instalment for seventy years will never be delivered – because the company they contracted with has gone bankrupt. And so Wanbli comes up with a solution which benefits both his home world of Neunacht and the revivalists. And everyone lives happily ever after.
There’s a pleasing lightness of touch throughout The Third Eagle – clearly this is a novel intended to charm its reader. Wanbli is a likeable protagonist – he’s a naif, with superb combat skills but also with the rigidly-defined moral framework necessary to control them. He works his way through the story, it often seems, with a somewhat dim grin on his face. Which is not in itself a disadvantage in a protagonist – the innocent abroad is a well-established narrative and an effective means of exploring an invented universe. But MacAvoy’s universe in The Third Eagle does feel a little bland. It’s more diverse than is usual for the subgenre, and the aliens are drawn well, but culturally it seems a little flat and generic, and there is almost no political dimension at all.
But the conceit of the revivalists, the idea that in this settled polity of worlds there are dark ships travelling unknowing to destinations which are no longer open to settlment, is especially neat. MacAvoy even considers the ramifications:
“Didn’t you ever hear about the Accibos settlement, where the supposedly lost sleeper ship came down, right on target, in the most logical place to build a city? Where, in fact, they had built a city? Annihilation! Since Accibos no one has stood in our way. The entire populated galaxy needs us!” (p 207)
Unfortunately, this conceit is introduced too late in the story, and there’s little about the first two-thirds of the book which makes it stand out from a host of other light space operas (space operettas?). MacAvoy’s prose is very readable, and the story meanders along at an agreeable pace, but there’s nothing in The Third Eagle which suggest it’s anything other than a minor work.