Review: The Termite Queen: Volume One: The Speaking of the Dead

The Termite Queen: Volume One: The Speaking of the Dead
The Termite Queen: Volume One: The Speaking of the Dead by Lorinda J. Taylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is full of marvelous science fiction elements, building not only a vision of a future academia on Earth, but also a society of termites and their distant world, and several other alien species already interacting with humanity.

I found it a compelling read, however, I also had some frustrations. The book begins with a biological expedition gone wrong: while exploring and collecting specimens, the party is attacked by a giant warrior termite. They succeed in killing it, and bringing home a smaller specimen. On the journey, one of the team leaders begins to suspect the creature is intelligent, and brings in a young linguist to study the termite in its dying hours.

The scenes between the doomed bug and its human interpreter are beautiful and moving, and they set me up to want more human/termite interactions. Alas, in this volume, that is not to be. The book alternates between scenes of Kaitrin and Gwidian, the other team leader who initially does not believe the creatures are intelligent, and scenes on the termite world, where the human incursion has caused turmoil which may lead to the equivalent of civil war.

Most of the book takes place in dialog. For a book about a linguist, that makes a certain amount of sense, but the dialog is serving every purpose: it provides backstory, exposition, conflict and even description. The trouble with dialog is that it reads in real-time, as if you are listening to a conversation. In a book consisting almost entirely of dialog, that makes it very hard to manage the pace–everything unfolds at the same rate.

Many of the conversations at the outset take place during committee meetings to plan the voyage. Some of this is vital information we’ll need in order to understand Kaitrin’s linguistic leaps–but often it’s simply too much. Also, most of the dialog is “on the nose”: it is about exactly what it says, with little conflict, tension, subtext or character development.

The author has made the choice to portray her termite characters entirely through dialog, with occasional stage directions, due to their sensory limitations. This is a choice that fits with their world, but also limits the author’s range in presenting them to the reader. The feel of these sections is almost like Greek drama. I think the effect could have been heightened by thoroughly investing in the sensory information in the human-narrated passages–showing the reader how different the two species are.

The science fiction content, especially the linguistic approach and the alien societies, is fascinating stuff and made me want to read on, in spite of the book’s stylistic flaws.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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3 Responses to Review: The Termite Queen: Volume One: The Speaking of the Dead

  1. Just a reminder that the two volumes of The Termite Queen constitute one novel. It’s not a single novel plus a sequel. Therefore, you don’t get the full effect until you finish the second volume. The book was too long, unfortunately, to publish all in one volume, something I would have preferred. The big climax doesn’t come until about halfway through v.2.

    • I didn’t realize they should be read as one book! I’m glad you let me know–I was assuming a series format.

      • I guess that in all the material I’ve written about TQ I’ve never made that clear. I always call it a “2-volume novel” but that may not register with everybody, and then not everybody reads what I’ve written about it. So it’s imperative that anybody who has read v.1 should buy v.2 and continue the saga! ;-)

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