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Dance of Knives

by Donna McMahon

Vancouver sci-fi writer William Gibson is known for his pioneering depictions of the anarchic, post-apocalyptic city. With Dance of Knives, first-time novelist and fellow Vancouverite Donna McMahon has put her stamp on that futuristic vision. The novel is set in 22nd-century Vancouver, where global economic collapse and a massive sea-level rise have horrifically transformed the Pacific Northwest. Workers live in Guilds that provide for all their necessities, while the descendants of American refugees live impoverished, desperate lives. To the
half-drowned island of Downtown comes young Klale Renhardt, having left the Fishers Guild to seek independence.

Naive, sheltered Klale strikes it lucky the first day by landing a job at the KlonDyke, a popular lesbian/bent bar. But she soon finds herself in over her head; caught in the middle of a looming war between the tongs and gangs that run Downtown, and strangely fascinated by Blade, a man who has been turned into a tool – a violent slave whose sense of identity and will have been systematically destroyed and replaced by unquestioning obedience to Choi Shung Wai, Downtown’s most powerful blackmailer.

McMahon skilfully depicts the struggles of class, race, sexuality, and culture in her future Vancouver, tensions that feel realistically extrapolated from the present day. History, social issues, and new technology are smoothly inserted into the narrative without bogging the story down. There are delightful touches, too: a cat named after Mohawk writer Pauline Johnson, and the Screaming Eagles, a militant organization reminiscent of the Black Panthers with their dedication to creating education and jobs.

Klale is an exasperatingly endearing mixture of naiveté and principles, a rich kid who doesn’t know when to let well enough alone. McMahon manages to evade the popular trope of the privileged youngster saving the day by making the consequences of Klale’s actions very real, shocking, and a troublesome mixed blessing. My one quibble is with a character named Bracken, a “true hermaphrodite” who vamps and flirts outrageously, but whose sexual desires are written as ludicrously unachievable. I’d have followed Bracken home in a hot minute.