Very few people, even those who are somewhat familiar with science fiction, will know the name Mike Resnick, but I was still surprised to find myself the first reviewer of this book. Resnick holds the record for Hugo award nominations and is arguably the most consistently brilliant writer of short speculative fiction at work today. In fact, before reading this novel, I had only come across him through his stories that made the last three consecutive Hugo shortlists. So perhaps the fact that no Resnick fan has spoken up for "The Dark Lady" means that it simply isn't his best work? Should I not have chosen this as my introduction to his books?
Well, it certainly has some flaws. Halfway through, I began to wonder why this adventure mystery needed to be set in outer space at all. While I love SF, I'm often disappointed by the space opera format that is nothing more than a colourful setting, which can make it harder to care about the characters or suspend disbelief about the silliness of the action. In this story, an art expert must traverse the galaxy, collecting diverse paintings that feature the same woman. In service of the plot, there is no reason why the hero must be an alien, live in the far, far future, or even leave the same continent let alone hop from planet to planet. This story could easily have been a fantasy about a modern human, set in a dark and supernatural version of the modern world. Also, this is a mystery with very little mystery to it; we very quickly guess the nature of the Dark Lady's secrets, but the characters seem very slow to catch on, which is more than a little annoying.
But despite all these apparent negatives, I really rather enjoyed the book. Resnick is a fun writer and this story has a real sense of tongue-in-cheek fun. The anti-heroic narrator might grate on some people's nerves -- he is cowardly, melodramatic and bumbling -- but I really enjoyed watching his inept progress, in particular Resnick is very clever in making us feel sympathy for the alien who encounters nothing but prejudice and xenophobia along his journey. The book is mainly about this character study, in which events are thrust upon a polite and neurotic hero who is amusingly ill-equipped to deal with the cut-throat worlds he travels through. The overall feel of the piece is quite a classic one, a golden-era caper somewhat following the campy style of Heinlein's Double Star, with all the playful colour of Larry Niven's Ringworld (S.F. Masterworks) and, thankfully, without Niven's stumbling attempts at erotica.
This is a light SF read aimed at classic SF and fantasy readers and a hard book to recommend to fans of idiotic military space-sagas or to those looking for more profound or dystopian themes in their SF. That is not to say that this is not a very fun and charming read that will provide those of us in the middle ground with a few hours of highly enjoyable diversion.
An alien, art enthusiast “Leonardo” is employed by Claiborne Gallery. At an auction, he takes interest in a painting of a mysterious woman by an unknown artist. The auction has two extremely interested bidders, Abercrombie and Venzia. Abercrombie wins the auction, and after hearing Leonardo claim that he has seen instances of this mysterious woman, employs Leonardo to locate more of the said artworks. Abercrombie has plenty of money to spare and his obsession makes him determined to complete the collection, even if he does have to employ an alien to find them. Venzia on the other hand, is more interested in the lady herself, rather than the artworks.
After researching more information and locating a few more instances, it seems the artworks span many centuries and the artists have become obsessed with the woman shortly before their death. This leads Leonardo to suspect The Dark Lady isn't actually human and could be similar to Death or some type of God.
Leonardo's journey takes him across the galaxy and teams him up with art-thief Heath which brings interesting conflict of interests for Leonardo. His race known as the Bjornn live by a strict ethical code, so making acquaintances with a renegade really tests him, as does his determination to abide by his contract with Claiborne Gallery whilst serving the despicable Abercrombie. Leonardo was a really interesting character, and I'd go and far as to say he is one of my favourite lead characters of any book.
The combination of the plot and strong characters make the book a brilliant read. Sadly, the ending takes a turn for the worst. It feels a bit rushed and is so vague, it seems like there is a massive build up, culminating with no firm conclusion. With a better ending, it could have achieved 5 stars, but regardless of the disappointing ending, it is an enjoyable read.