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West of January


Winner of the Prix Aurora for Long Form Work in English Runner up, Georges Bugnet Award for Novel, 1990 Looking back at this book after twenty years, I find a few things in it that I regret, but not very many. There is a lot of it that I am still quite proud of. When people colonized Vernier, they expected a world gravitationally locked on its star. That would have been bad enough, but the truth turned out to be worse. Its period of rotation (day) was not quite the same as its period of revolution (year), so the sun crept very slowly among the stars. After two hundred centuries, humanity has learned how to survive on this pitiless planet, but it was not easy and Vernier has changed them in many ways. . As you will discover, Knobil is not an entirely reliable narrator and his travels are curiously similar to another, better known, Odyssey, but I think you will grow to like him all the same.


" A very impressive work throughout. " - SF Chronicle

" Painted in bold strokes with pleasingly offbeat and entertaining results. " - Publishers Weekly

Sample Chapter

"I have never known angels to travel in pairs," Herdmaster Agomish rumbled in the deepest voice I had ever heard.

I could not see his face, for I had been told to keep my eyes lowered. I could see the end of his black beard, however, and it hung below his belt. I could see his boots and breeches, and two giant, hairy hands, either of which could have snapped my neck without calling for help from the other. I had not known that most herdfolk males were made on the same scale as my father. That rock-smasher voice seemed to fall from the sky.

Violet had ordered me not to speak, for he had said that I spoke like a herdman, not like an angel. I doubt that my dry throat would have put out intelligent sound, anyway. I stood at his side with my eyes down and my mouth shut. I stared at the herdmaster‘s enormous boots and fervently wished I was safely hidden in the chariot as usual.

But this time Violet had decreed that I would accompany him, without saying why. He had also told me not to believe anything he said about me. Herdfolk were too dumb to see through a few lies, he had said.

"Even angels have to be trained, Herdmaster," he now replied cheerfully. "He is merely here to learn, though, and will remain silent in the presence of his elders, as children should."

The hint was taken. My fair complexion deceived the herdman, as it had earlier deceived both Anubyl and Violet.

"The boy is welcome as you are, sir," Agomish retorted. "I offer you whatever hospitality I have to give. Come, then!"

I limped painfully behind my guardian angel as he accompanied the giant herdman down the slope toward camp. I had observed the tents earlier, nine of them. The colors and designs looked wrong to me, and there were many more than nine women fussing around the fire, so Agomish had several old wives in his family. There were strangely few children, yet woollies without number swarmed everywhere, in all directions. Perhaps the children were out herding, yet the herd was straggling badly. I disapproved.

As we drew near, though, the familiar bustle and the familiar smells of a herdfolk camp sang softly to me of my lost childhood, and a lump grew hard in my throat. A girl laughed like Rilana. I saw a boy so like Todish that I almost called out to him.

Cushions had been spread on rugs before the tents. Angel and herdmaster sat down together, Still favoring my right knee, I lowered myself to the ground behind Violet, keeping my face turned as far away from Agomish as I thought I decently could. I was no angel, but a herdman, within sight of his women. If he as much as suspected that, how long would the truce last? As long as one breath-my last.

The unexpected appearance of a second visitor had caused some confusion among the women. There was a brief delay. Agomish clapped his hands angrily, with impacts like ax blows, and then two bowls of water were rushed over to us. One of them was held before my downcast eyes. A woman... a woman... was kneeling on the other side of it. I admired the pattern of her skirt furiously, to avoid seeing anything above her waist. Copying the angel‘s actions, I splashed water over my face, laved my hands, and accepted a towel.

But the savory scent of cooking was making my young mouth water. Dried and smoked meat had been my diet for too long. Now I could smell hot fresh meat and juicy delicacies... roo brains... roast dasher! Another dress appeared before me. Two slim hands laid a piled dish alongside my outstretched legs. The woman vanished and I set to work to make the feast do the same.

"Think of a tall tree, Herdmaster," Violet was saying with his mouth full. "If you stand close, you have to bend your head back very far to see the top of it... Is that not so? While, if you are far away, then you can look straight at it? Well, the sun is very high, but the same is true of the sun. Is it not higher-closer-than you remember it as a child?"

The herdman growled. "I had not noticed sir."

"Think back to when you were a herder. Remember your shadow?"

I paid little attention as Violet went patiently on, trying to persuade his host that the sun did move, although so slowly that a man would not notice. Woollies did not like to be too far from the sun, he said-they became sluggish. But they could not live too close to it, either, for the heat dried up all the grass, and also the water holes that the herders needed. So the herdfolk always lived about the same distance from the sun, moving slowly westward as it advanced... in a crescent shape...

Agomish insisted that he had been a herdmaster long enough to sire twenty-eight live daughters and he had not moved westward more than in any other direction. Always he had gone to the best water and grazing.

As the conversation dragged on, as my appetite died of its own success, I began to gain an inkling of Violet‘s repeated insistence that herdfolk were stupid. It was obvious to me, but not to the mighty, thunder-voiced Agomish. I felt rather smug when I understood that, but of course I had been given this explanation before and had had much time to think about it. And I had enjoyed an angel‘s-eye overview on a long journey through a grossly over-grazed, overstocked countryside.

Then I realized that the other two had finished eating. I quickly dropped the dasher bone I was gnawing. I licked my fingers.

"You will need rest, sir." The doubts had crept back into our host‘s voice. "I shall be honored if you will accept the use of one of my tents, and a companion to ease your cares. And your... boy?"

He wanted to know how many tents, how many women... and suddenly I wanted to know, also. What did Violet have planned now? A mingled rush of renewed nervousness and incredulous hope began to interfere with my hard-working digestion. My groin tingled strangely. He couldn‘t expect...

Could he?