I first heard of the Icerigger Trilogy a decade ago when I was on vacation and bought the second book, Mission to Moulokin, along with a dozen other vintage SF novels. My idiosyncrasies prevent me from starting with book two in a trilogy, so I tried to track down the other two novels. Well, that was an exercise in frustration; I can’t seem to swing a dead cat without finding yet another hardcover SFBC edition of Mission to Moulokin, but the other two are damn hard to find. (Never mind that Moulokin was apparently the only one in the trilogy published in hardback.) I found out later that the exact same thing happened to one of my friends, who ended up going through a lot of trouble to get Icerigger, and last I knew he still hadn’t found The Deluge Drivers.
Anyways, the point of this rambling introduction being, thanks to our new digital age I acquired all three novels via a three-in-one ebook omnibus for $2 during a Cyber Monday sale. I’m thankful that a lot of older, hard-to-find books are coming back through digital means rather than being lost to the ages.
Ethan Fortune’s plans involve selling high-quality heaters to the primitive natives of Tran-Ky-Ky, a planet whose oceans have since turned to ice; that’s the main reason he’s aboard the starliner heading to the frozen, backwater planet. But when Ethan stumbles into the kidnapping of the wealthy Hellespont Du Kane, the kidnappers know they can’t let him run off to alert the authorities, so he’s brought along for the ride. In turn, what the kidnappers did not expect was roughneck adventurer Skua September sleeping off a bender in the lifeboat the kidnappers had picked; one chaotic crash-landing later and they find themselves lost on Tran-Ky-Ky, thousands of kilometers from the single Humanx Commonwealth outpost and abandoned by their starliner.
But the novel doesn’t stay one of survival against the elements—as well as the strange flora and fauna of Tran-Ky-Ky—for long; the local inhabitants arrive: the winged feline Tran, whose claws have evolved to become much like ice skates to fit this harsh climate. These Tran come from the city-state of Wannome, which is living under the threat of a large, roaming, barbarian Horde, which arrives every few decades to demand tribute from the city-states, sacking those which defy them. With the help of the shipwrecked humans, perhaps the Tran of Wannome may be able to revolt against their oppressors and smash the Horde once and for all? Swordfights ensue, eventually followed by an ice-bound clipper ship exploring its way back to the Humanx outpost.
Now, I realize, describing things as “cats on ice-skates with swordfights and clipper ships” may be doing a disservice to this novel. Indeed, Icerigger comes from the grand tradition of pulpy space operas where action, adventure, and cool ideas outrank, say, logic and maturity… by which I’m trying to say it’s damn good fun, though it’s not highbrow science fiction by anyone’s measure. Foster did, after all, ghost-write the Star Wars novels, so this kind of sword-and-planet romp is handled with expertise. The elements may—well, do—sound pretty corny when taken at face value, but they’re presented well, and given a slight humorous flair to let us know not to take things too seriously.
Foster does a lot of creative world-building here, with the glimpse into Tran-Ky-Ky’s organisms and environment and Trannish culture. There are several cool scenes involving the local fauna, and promises for more to come in the sequels. The characters are all stock cutouts, but they have unique personalities and neat twists on those stock types. The novel is a bit awkward in that it jumps between so many themes and plot types, though the novel had my attention the whole time. The book starts off a kidnapping, moves to grim survival, becomes a pulpy swords-and-planets “fend off the barbarians” plot, and concludes with the aforementioned clipper ship sailing (icing?) its way past various threats and places of interest which faintly reminds me of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. Quite a lot to accomplish; it’s also the first in a trilogy, and so has only a half-hearted ending.
Foster’s prose is solid and very readable, addictive in the same way you can’t eat just one potato chip. (Maybe you can stop yourself after a handful, but just one? That takes effort.) He does have a massive vocabulary, spending five-dollar words with great fervor in an apparent case of prose over-budgeting; I’m glad I read an e-book version so I could just tap the more esoteric words and have the reader pull up the dictionary definition. Also, the novel dated itself with some odd misogyny (namely about heiress Colette Du Kane’s body image, unless describing her ass like a cake of sherbert is somehow a compliment).
I have a soft spot for light and action-packed space opera romps, so I enjoyed reading Icerigger; it’s a guilty pleasure when I have all those Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. LeGuin novels in my to-read pile. But, really, it’s an addictive and capable adventure that handles both frozen survival and swashbuckling carnage with style. Alan Dean Foster is an author I’ve always loved reading, because his books are the perfect kind of rainy-day novel that make me feel like a wide-eyed kid again, reading The Martian Chronicles or watching Star Wars for the first time. Icerigger is a bit corny, perhaps, but it’s well-crafted and entertaining for what it’s doing. Nothing substantial but filled with great action, wit, and a certain kind of charm. I enjoyed it but I am predisposed to liking Foster’s work; I am glad the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads share my opinion about Icerigger, making me feel less guilty about liking it.