CLUBHOUSE: Review: “The Dream-Chosen,” by Celu Amberstone

OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.

The Dream-Chosen: Tales of the Kashallans, Book 1  – by Celu Amberstone

Publisher: Kashallan Press, Victoria, B.C., Canada , 2021.

Premise:

An intelligent parasitical race may have to look for a new host species.

Review:

 Parasite is a  loaded word. It conjures up movies like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) or VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) where aliens attempt to supplant the human race. But the underlying concept of this book is infinitely more subtle than the 1950s era cold war paranoia of those entertaining and thoughtful films. Though paranoia plays a role, the aliens, known as the Khutani, are actually symbionts, creatures seeking a symbiotic relationship of mutual benefit for both them and their hosts. Not necessarily a bad thing; indeed potentially decidedly the opposite. Most important of all, open to interpretation which allows for a wide range of character response and reaction to the evolving situation. All sorts of dramatic possibilities.

But how do you introduce the basic premise in a convincing and intriguing manner? A mere info dump won’t do. Certainly John Wyndham in his novel THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS (which was the basis of the film THE VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED) had a bang-up opening. Everyone in a small English village falls unconscious for a few hours, and a while later it turns out that every healthy woman in the community has simultaneously become pregnant, presumably when they were all unconscious. Now there’s a source of tension!

The first chapter of THE DREAM-CHOSEN is entirely devoted to the Khutani. Not at all an info dump, but rather an action sequence where the leader of a pod dares to revive the Ancient Khutani named Gladdris from a state of suspended animation. This is not without risk, since an Ancient tends to eat its descendants during the revival process. Like us, burdened with instincts. However, each member of the pod has brought food as an offering. In essence they open the cave to initiate the process, dump the food, and retreat, sealing the cave behind them. Very logical.

Then, after a joyful meet and greet, the premise is laid bare. The Khutani live on the badly-damaged planet Timorna. The priesthood of the host species Avairei are suspected of being up to no good. It is decided that the time has come to lure a new, more suitable host species to Timorna. The discussion both sets up the premise and establishes the compassionate nature of the Khutani in that they insist the host species must be suitable and without any built-in or inherent danger of being harmed by the act of symbiosis. Good. We are beginning to get a grip on the Khutani’s nature, concerns, motivation, and goals.

But here’s the thing. Though the Khutani can communicate telepathically, just as efficiently as we speak aloud abstract and complicated concepts, their equivalent of intonation and facial expression to communicate emotion is provided by their sense of taste. Every emotion has a flavour. Thus they writhe about each other tasting with their facial tentacles. They secret regret. They vomit uncertainty. It’s a rather messy way to communicate via chemicals, but it’s far more precise and specific than our use of hormones.

I can’t tell you how refreshing and original this opening chapter strikes me. Not only do we begin to understand the premise of the book and the mindset of the Khutani, we also learn, in a visceral way, how truly alien they are. Even better, we begin to take their personal habits for granted and accept it as a legitimate form of communication, albeit not one we would choose to use. After all, we know dogs depend heavily on their sense of smell to understand the world around them. Easy to make the leap to a sentient species depending on their sense of taste. From now on the reader reacts to the alien Khutani in terms of observing their emotional state as opposed to reacting in disgust. Brilliant.

In short, the opening chapter introduces the Khutani wonderfully well. Definitely makes you want to read more.

In the second chapter we are introduced to the current host species, the Avairei, intelligent furred creatures with tiny claws. We’ve been led to believe they are treacherous, but the female called Sagas seems a decent sort as she dream conjures a trip among the stars. However, she is terribly upset. Her dream has turned into a nightmare, with a close approach to a planet where shiny objects are blasting each other out of orbit. Fortunately a “Maker,” one of the Khutani, who are noted for resurrecting dead races, appears to coil about her body and clutch her face with its tentacles. Sagas finds this reassuring.  She trusts the Makers who appear in her dreams, even though she has never met one in real life.

There’s a brief discussion on interspecies relationships. “You can’t hide the bitter taste of your lies from us forever.” “We mean no disrespect—we hoped only to spare you torment.” This indicates the threats to symbiosis is more than mere good aliens vs bad aliens, but a convoluted series of misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Maybe. Remains to be seen. But the tension between the two races is further elaborated and the reader is hard put to determine which they should empathise with. Perhaps both.

Then the khutani guides Sagas down to the surface of the planet in her dream to confront the nightmare and learn what it actually represents. Seems Sagas had accidentally been drawn to its vicinity by the mind-contact launched by the Khutani to attract the local inhabitants as new hosts. Sagas sees them as four-limbed, mostly hairless Avairei-like creatures with beautiful manes. In fact they are human beings who have come to the planet Dymar and occupied it, only to be challenged by a different group of humans who are on the verge of winning their war of conquest. Point is, the elements of the chapter dealing with Sagas are dynamic, involving flight from and reluctant return to a planet engulfed by warfare, yet slipping in details concerning Avairei intelligent, emotions, and dream powers. If this is an info dump, it is well disguised as an action piece evolving the plot.

The last part of chapter two concerns Dunnagh Kai, an officer commanding two squads on a reconnaissance patrol. The Green Squad under O’Neil has gone missing. Dunnagh uses his Psy powers to attempt to locate O’Neil’s squad, but fails. At one point he goes into “Cumbersaid” mode, his spirit rising above his body tethered by a silver cord. Nothing less than Astral travel, I gather. Approaching enemy troops firing beam rifles forces Dunnagh to pile his Blue Squad into an armoured hovercraft and flee.

Again, a dynamic, changing situation, in this case used to introduce humans into the mix, establish their courage and compassion, not to mention describe the level of both their technological and spiritual powers.

Okay, three races involving an unusual biological relationship, hints of treachery and betrayal, hints of past and futures disasters, moderately advanced technology, highly advanced psy powers, magic and spiritual power taken for granted, and a galaxy-wide environment. This is space opera writ large combined with both fantasy and hard SF. That’s one heck of an accomplishment to establish in two short opening chapters. Even without knowing there are multiple volumes, it’s obvious the Kashallan Tales constitute a genuine epic written with such skill that you will be enthralled however long the series lasts.

The first two chapters are the set-up which gives you everything you need to know to anchor yourself in the story, accept the premise, and go with the flow. A more competent opening for an epic would be hard to imagine.

In the remainder of this first book you are introduced to several more races and a large number of characters. Begins to have a “War and Peace” feel to it and I mean that in a good way. You quickly develop a sense of exploring not only a sequence of events but also plunging into greater and greater depths of relationships and meaning. The societies and their patterns of thought become more and more fascinating. Satisfying your curiosity makes for face-paced reading.

At the same time there is a great deal of action and perils encountered but not always overcome that creates a sense of adventure with an ancestry going back to the earliest pulp fiction, yet imbued with a selfishness and narrowness of perception that is curiously modern. In a way, each race isn’t struggling to cope with the unknown so much as striving to shoehorn the unexpected into preconceived notions easier to deal with. Very much like contemporary politics, in fact. This combination lends a timeless air to the work. It will be as fresh decades from now as it reads today.

In other words, no obvious satire or commentary on current politics, and yet… and yet… more than “mere” derring-do. Much subtlety to contemplate, mostly in the area of overall themes like the advantages and disadvantages of colonization as it impacts both natives and settlers in myriad, often unanticipated ways, rather than anything that makes you think of individual politicians or historical events. Yet there are lessons present if you look for them.

Many of the characters are loads of fun. A certain Lizardman for instance, who is both monstrous and oddly endearing in his arrogant, brutal habits and mindset. And I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to reveal that  the human Dunnagh Kai is the first of his race to be contacted by the Khutani. This doesn’t make his life easier. Far from it. All kinds of problems rear up, not only with the aliens, but with his fellow humans. Boils down to more potential enemies than he had ever dreamed of possessing. And he’s not alone. None of the multiple characters have an easy time of it. But they’re all in there struggling, even if they’re not quite sure against whom or what.

 CONCLUSION:

 This is a richly detailed fantasy/space opera that is positively addictive. Celu Amberstone has the knack of weaving elaboration and action into a vivid tapestry of action and character. Well rounded, deftly written, and a joy to read. Highly recommended. Consider it a useful antidote to mundane life these days. THE DREAM-CHOSEN is a genuine pleasure you owe yourself.

Check it out: <  The Dream-Chosen >

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