Character overdrive – K.J. Blaine’s “Telepaths and Traitors”

Description by the author / blurb:

The year is 2042 and mankind has colonized the solar system. The International Space Alliance has emerged in response to the lawlessness teeming in the new frontier. The ISA’s most advanced ship, the Phoenix, has a mission of both peacekeeping and scientific research. The Phoenix’s power is unmatched by any other vessel, but can her crew withstand the threat of mind control and betrayal from within?

 An admiral with a grudge orders an antique B-29 to crash with Captain Jason Armstrong and two of the Phoenix crew aboard, but they parachute out in the nick of time. Lost at sea, with the Phoenix on the other side of the solar system, and aware they’re targeted for assassination, who can they trust to rescue them?

Join in the search and daring rescue!
tel and trait


Telepaths and Traitors“ is, above all, a story about Tim Macdonald, the communications officer of the Phoenix. “The Phoenix Chronicles” self-qualify as Space Opera centred on characters. The description is already done superabundant justice to in this first instalment of the Chronicles, because the chosen centre exerts such influence that the shape of the novel is not crafted by a storyline, it is worked by a person: that is, Tim.
Once this particularity is understood, it might take less to wonder that the events triggering Tim’s personal quest already have happened when the book begins. They aren’t described in retrospect; the relevant facts are referred, they are not rendered colourful by storytelling. Tim, under the threat of torture, or real torture, gave away secret knowledge that greatly endangered the Phoenix vessel. Given the circumstances nobody blames him, but he sufficiently blames himself. „Telepaths and Traitors“ tells whether Tim will be able to overcome his guilt and to regain trust in his worth as a crew member. The chance and risk to do so is offered in a new adventure in which it befalls on him to save the computer genius of the crew and its most precious member – the Captain Armstrong.

The storyline can appear confusing, especially from the beginning to the middle part. Some rapid leaps are made: Tim, woe-laden, wants to quit his service and is involved in a treatment process both by the psychologist-doctor of the vessel and his Catholic priest; Tim’s astounding telepathic abilities are discovered; Tim is involved in a hypnosis session, to get to the core of the event that initiated his self-loathing; Tim might pose a security risk; next, a powerful telepath appears on board and secrets and security are threatened anew.
The pace of these first chapters is so vigorous as to be a little jumpy. The enthralled speed with which Blaine rushes through some scenes unhappily is not enthralling. The scenes fly by and hardly has the reader time to wrap his mind about them, to take part in the action, to feel the tension rising, to exhale when it ebbs out, to sense his senses trickle when it rises again.
When everything points to the conclusion that the telepath is about to damage the Phoenix, when precipitated steps are taken to save the situation, the reader is precipitated past the climax. He looks back in surprise; he sees the climax looming behind; he hasn’t noticed he has passed it. Though he he has seen everything, he has felt nothing.

It took me some trouble to understand why the author would finish off such scenes, ripe with so much thrill potential, with just some dazzling brushes of the pen – while other scenes, structured by much less action, are drawn out long and large.
The latter remark refers to Tim’s personal quest and to all the painstaking tasks he has to fulfil in order to achieve it. In great detail are described his dealings with parachutes, life raft and jelly fish. All his doubts, pains and moments of relief are recorded, at points with exaggerated solicitude. If Blaine pushed the reader over the brink beforehand, now she really retains him on the altitude. The air grows thin; the climax perpetuates itself; the reader languishes away.

Another example of this phenomenon: the reader knows an accident must necessarily happen; he knows the flight of Tim, Armstrong and genius Steve across the ocean won’t ever gaily go on; therefore, he knows that everything common that passes, everything that is not yet the catastrophe, must lead up to the climax of the catastrophe; the reader knows he’s already treading the heights, close to the point when the peak must topple over itself in the burst of the climax; he’s treading that ground like on hot coals; but he won’t leave it. Ever more engrossing gets Blaine’s description of the minor doings of the three crew members: playing video games, reading Japanese learning material, watching the sun set; going to the toilet; playing poker; and eating. For the most part, this is bereft of significance for the climax. It seems already reached, yet never seems to kick in. The reader gets out of air. He gets bored.
Again: it takes some reflection to understand the reason behind this discrepancy of action precociously blown off and action stretched into the minutiae of its component parts. The author possesses the skill for both, even up to the forms of their exaggeration. Therefore, the reason cannot be sought elsewhere but in the author’s special motivation.
The solution to the riddle is that the motivation stems from the daring conception of Space Opera exclusively dependent on characters; so much, it seems, as to become quite careless about the storyline. This conception cannot be but a misconception. Characters do not evolve in vacuum zones but in the critical interchange with the events of their lifeworld. They do not, in demiurgic fashion, shape their world by freely bestowing meaning on it, irrespective of any universal background of life events. The simple givenness of the lifeworld precedes its individual shaping by sense-giving. When the story gets heavy by the drag of redundancy, seldom is the perspective on the inner life of characters able to spur it on, however excited or frightened the characters may be about what happens to them. It’s not that it would be impossible. Henry James was able to do it. Some others did. They are masters of literature.

The reader will miss out on nothing what Tim does and how he feels about it in order to save himself and his companions. Later when the perspective changes to the captain and to a more general perspective again, further details about jelly fish, heat packages and life beacons are discharged upon the reader. He wonders whether he is reading a Space Opera or a survivor’s manual wrapped in the cover of an adventure novel, without sharing any of its thrill.
Whenever the story switches back to the Phoenix and to the efforts of the important crew members to locate and help their lost companions, the reader draws breath with relief. But even on the Spaceship the air grows thin when redundancy renders events sluggish on their long uphill toil to the next climax. An example: Commander Holt invites the big players of the crew to a conference about the complicated situation. The author, in such a critical moment, does not spare the reader with details about the breakfast preferences and sleeping patterns of said crew members, before anything actually pertaining to the tension arc of the story is spoken about and decided upon.

As said above, the author does not start her novel with a recapitulation of past adventures of the Phoenix. She does not relate the basic biographic points of characters before she sends them to act on the stage. Often she does not further explain certain comments of the crew members among themselves, such that the reader, being new to the Phoenix story, does not gather their significance – or only later on, when further reflections and references have accumulated.
The problem about this procedure is that the author knows her characters so much better than the reader. When the author, who has taken an interest in her characters long beforehand, is ready to accompany them through vast stretches of small actions and inner self reflections, the reader is not yet prepared for this, because he didn’t even have the time to take up a personal relation with the central figures. It is not surprising that, after I had finished the novel for the first time, I was able to watch the characters play their poker game with a more tolerant attitude when I returned to the scene again – before, I only had been stricken by boredom.
Still, the scenes tend towards redundancy, but better acquaintance with the characters imparts some significance to them. The author seems to have forgotten that the reader needs to get some experience with the characters before he can start to care about them, and even care about what is of lesser importance.

If this novel had been a standalone, I wouldn’t have considered rating it higher than a single star. Because in that case the author would have promised an amplitude of character dimension she would never have been able to fulfil in the frame of a single novel. But the Phoenix-Chronicles already count five titles and the same people as in “Telepaths and Traitors” fight, love and hate throughout them. This means that the character amplitude of the first instalment is quite real. Nevertheless it would have befitted the novel much better had it kept to the fast pace of the first chapters, while forcing the somewhat haphazard pace down to more rhythmic movements whenever the tension potential of the action called for exploitation. But with the present shape of the novel, the biggest piece of storytelling is occupied by small actions with repetitive content eternally reflected onto the inner psychic state of characters.

For all its laudable preoccupation with characters, unfortunately “Telepaths and Traitors” falls short not only on the narrative but also on the atmospheric side.
Certainly, Space Operas must no carry the pretension to be coherent about the science part of their fiction. Thus it shouldn’t be construed as a complaint against the novel that the standard semi-scientific explanations are missing. However, in this case at least an empty science-speak should have been supplied for atmosphere’s sake.
As this has not happened, sometimes even credibility is done away with. Telepathic signals, as clear as phone calls, are sent from one part of the galaxy to the other. And non-telepaths can join in the crystal-clear communication simply by body contact. The mechanism is so wonderful indeed the reader wonders if it might not be the sorry excuse of a deus-ex-machina mechanism. A science-speak explanation might have bestowed some credibility at this point.

This question put aside, it should be finally highlighted that the pull of character-centredness of this Space Opera is so overpowering it often blots out the Space setting from the Opera stage by force of its maelstrom. Devoid of descriptions that give rise to the Space feeling, the novel pushes to the frontiers of the genre – much to the woe of the reader thirsting for the classic Space Opera formulae: the triple magic of dimensional characters plus an exciting storyline plus the ever mysterious atmosphere of Space. Blaine does not add more than one ingredient to the potion. The taste turns out rather bland, though much might be remedied in other instalments of the series.

Rating: 2 of 5 stars

Link to Amazon USA (paperback, Kindle also available)
Link to Amazon Germany