Smith, Kristine. 2000. Rules of Conflict. New York: Avon Eos.

Reviewed 16 September 2000

Rules of Conflict (cover) "Paranoid?" Did somebody say "paranoid"? Just because you think they're out to get you doesn't mean you're paranoid!

Jani Killian is back. And so is Kristine Smith, a Campbell-nominated author whose previous book (Code of Conduct 4 stars) set a very high standard and garnered significant praise (such as finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award). The real test of a new author is the second and third books he or she produces. The first book has been polished, quite possibly for years, and most likely was not written under external time pressure. The second book, however, particularly in a series or extended novel (single story spread over several volumes), is an entirely different proposition. So how did Ms. Smith do?

In one sense, Rules might as well be in a different extended novel or series than its predecessor. Although Jani and the environment continue, the focus is very different. The "action" appears, again, to focus on what is missing from records of the evacuation from Rauta Shèràa, from Jani's own past; this time, though, the past is almost a red herring. (Thus the lukewarm review in Locus; the reviewer completely missed the book's focus.) The critical moments are in the present, as when Jani formally obtains her very own esteemed enemy in a knife fight at the Idomeni embassy.

Somewhat surprisingly, speculative fiction boasts very few novels that focus on an individual's biomedical status, but do not force the environment (milieu and idea, which I do not believe can, or should, be separated) to be obsessively biomedical in nature. The concept of "disability," other than while confined to a hospital, is generally quite alien. Jani's various disabilities are critical parts of her character; as they change, so does she, albeit somewhat more slowly. This depiction of change is one of the strengths of this extended novel, and reflects the real difficulties with adjusting to both deteriorating and improving capabilities.

In any event, Rules rehabilitates Jani's legal status, pushes her biomedical status along an interesting path, and rather mangles her reputation. No longer a hunted criminal, one suspects that she is still, nonetheless, hunted. Not only by Nema and Hantìa, but probably by Evan Reuter, and still by her past. Her hallucinations were friendly in Code; they are rather less so in Rules. The metaphoric "haunting by the past" is quite a bit grimmer, grittier, and somewhat surprisingly sympathetic. Its increasing intensity again reflects deterioration in Jani's medical status.

As is normal in a second novel, the writing is somewhat less assured, and some of the subtler touches of Code (such as clearly depicted accents in dialog) are missing. I cannot determine whether this is a "sophomore slump" (albeit not a very significant one), the usual problem with evaluating the middle without knowing the end that plagues reviews of books in the middle of an extended novel, or a purposeful progression toward something else. We'll see when the third book is out. In the meantime, enjoy this one.

Overall rating: 4 stars
On the basis of this book, Kristine Smith is not a flash in the pan. This is a very fun book to read if you enjoy Macchiavellian power struggles, disdain for rules and bureaucracy, and constant, real threats to the protagonist that do not rely upon physical confrontation. My evaluation of this book will probably change after the third volume of this extended novel comes out.

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