The characterisation is almost non-existant, the writing is mediocre to poor, and virtually nothing hapA book with, sadly, no real redeeming features.
The characterisation is almost non-existant, the writing is mediocre to poor, and virtually nothing happens (it's a travelogue that doesn't bother talking about the places you're passing - like sightseeing in a tunnel). Bizarrely, this introduction to the Spelljammer setting has very little Spelljammer in it - it feels like passing time before the story can leave the planet.
A book in which a mediaeval peasant and his space-hippopotamus companion are chased by psychotic fascist spider-eels intent on conquering the galaxy ought not to be this... unremarkable.
However, it should be said that the book isn't totally worthless. I actually found it a pretty quick and easy read, and not offensively bad (barring a few dialogue tropes of the genre). And there's something interesting here about how much it wants to surprise and disconcert the reader. Several cliche plot developments are set up, only to be subverted, we get a few attempts at an "peasant's eye view" reanalysis of the grand heroic events of the main Dragonlance books, and it's all surprisingly ruthless (and bloody) in crushing hopes and dreams and hurting the characters (the opening chapters are some of the most overtly grim that I've read; my initial reaction at the time included the phrase "Little House on the Prairie meets Predator"). The author, incidentally, was a TSR game designer who wrote the campaign setting for Planescape, so it's not like he's an untalented hack. He just maybe doesn't have "writing novels" as his talent.
Unfortunately, the limitations of the author, and the limitations of the assignment the author was given, overcome the more interesting glimpses we get. The result is far from the worst book I've read, but has nothing positive to really recommend it. I can't even suggest it for people who want to find out about Spelljammer, since it seems as though almost all the content of that setting will have to wait for the rest of the series...
A lively, interesting young novel that is very clearly written by a very young man, who is very impressed with himself. I found I wanted to like it moA lively, interesting young novel that is very clearly written by a very young man, who is very impressed with himself. I found I wanted to like it more than I actually did - because I like what it is trying to do, both ideologically and artistically, but I'm not convinced by how it's actually done. Overall feels rather light and stilted, and I found it particularly annoying how Delany would happily lecture his readers on any subject that came to hand, despite being monumentally and disinterestedly ignorant about almost all of them. In particular, one might have expected a writer writing a novel about a linguist solving a linguistic puzzle (even if, deep down, that's not really what the book is about) to have bothered to learn how to correctly use basic linguistic terminology - or failing that, one might expect he'd have the decency not to use it at all. Instead, he wants us to acclaim his genius (there are whole pages of characters saying how wonderful the authorial-self-insert protagonist is) without actually bothering to do any of the work that might establish it.
Having said all that, it's imaginative enough, sporadically well-written enough, and above all just damn audacious enough to be a good book overall - you can certainly see why this novel got the world to recognise Delany's talent.
My best analogy would be a rather less good, but much more left-wing, The Stars My Destination. It's also, for anyone interested in trying Delany, much more approachable (though less good) than Dhalgren.
And despite my criticisms, I do suggest you try this book. It's a classic, it's conveniently short, it's generally fun to read, and it still feels mostly fresh and distinctive forty years later (though sadly its power to shock, if it was ever truly there, has likely faded entirely with the passage of time). I don't think it's the all-time-great that people say it is, but it's a seminal work that's well worth the read.