Disappearing Act
by Margaret Ball

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Baen: New York, 2004
313 pages

February 2005


Disappearing Act is a science fiction novel from Margaret Ball, who usually (except in collaboration) writes fantasy. Her fantasy novels are distinctive, sweetened with romance and gentled with humor, ofttimes sparkling with appropriately erudite math or science.

This novel has three locales: a big interstellar space station (a city, really); an advanced or high-technology planet in the cultural mainstream; and a frontier planet where advanced technologies are proscribed to shield the native cultures.

Our heroine, Maris, is an orphan of the streets in the space station, aged not quite seventeen (she thinks). She runs with a heavy smuggling gang, herself a minor criminal but bright and resilient and even lighthearted (so far). As the book opens, she is shadowing an interstellar diplomat whom she somewhat resembles:

Maris idled along the broad walkway of Fourteen, admiring the window displays, admiring her own reflection in the windows, and keeping one eye on the target, several shops ahead of her. She really should have had all her attention on the target — but top-level ladies never moved that fast, and it wasn't as if Maris had all that many chances to sashay along the shopping aisles of Fourteen as if she were a toppie herself, somebody who belonged there.

Ball deftly weaves in her own personal expertise in colors and fabrics. Maris' bodysuit is previously owned, but:

The turquoise and fuchsia spiral stripes still had plenty of glitter to them. And over that she had draped a sarong of real pseudosilk, purple with a border of gold sequins, whose artfully careless knot had cost her half an hour's sweating concentration.

And on the next page, events begin exploding in Maris' face. Shortly, under dire pressure, the diplomat vanishes. And soon enough, Maris (less lighthearted now) realizes that she had better find herself a safer role and disappear also.

Most of Disappearing Act is set in its third locale, the frontier planet. If you think of it as a distant echo of British India and its Northwest Frontier, you will have a rough idea. In this is perhaps an affinity of inspiration with Margaret Ball's fine fantasy Flameweaver.

This novel caught me off guard with the brutality of the political corruption, and the nastiness of highjacked bioscience. Now, these don't dominate the plot, but they do give it some ripping talons where we might have expected fisticuffs. Not kid stuff. Of course this adds considerably to the strength of the novel; the milieu thereby feels like a possible real future of ours, uncomfortably so.

While mulling the above, I happened across a comment on Christopher Marlowe by the major Shakespearean scholar, G. Wilson Knight:

In Marlowe the central unhappy complex may be felt within the cruel humour which pervades his wider action: the sadistic comedy of Tamburlaine, the horse-play of Doctor Faustus and the macabre farce of The Jew of Malta. All this is at once aesthetically unsatisfying and appallingly true to the world of our experience. It is as though the authentic reporting of the human state forces an ugly humour and a disrupted art.
G. Wilson Knight
Prefatory Notes
Poets of Action

Yes, unsatisfying in a way, but I wouldn't say that Ball's art is disrupted; and we likewise may assume that Marlowe knew what he was doing in attempting plays both aesthetic and true. You may want to brace yourself for some vivid badness among the adventures and romance in Disappearing Act. It's as though while enjoying the colorful spectacle of rajahs and elephants and Clive and Curzon, we cannot help now and then turning a corner into the caste and suttee, the Sepoy Mutiny and the Black Hole of Calcutta.

Where Disappearing Act seems a bit thin compared with Ball's fantasy novels is in the sense of place, the details of landscape. It is clear enough, at times satisfyingly solid underfoot, but I'd like to see more. For this, and for the interesting secondary and tertiary characters, I wish the novel were about ten percent longer. A map of the frontier world would help also.

Margaret Ball's heroines are charmers, and Maris is no exception. Maris carries the book, and deservedly so. She's well worth your attention.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

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