Hellspark is not without faults, but faults do not remove a five-star rating given out of pure joy. This is what I want my scifi to be like, and the fact that Kagan has not published much (and died in 2008) was rough to discover in a world where it seems like every book has a sequel. Sadz.
So what made me so happy and so sad? This book is about language. But it’s not just “scifi author has a language idea”, it’s about everything that makes up a native speaker’s fluency. It’s about gestures and body language, it’s about the distance you keep from others and how you approach them, it’s about your constructs of status and gender and civility. It’s also about your concept of consciousness, as all this takes place in the midst of the culturally (planetary) diverse survey team figuring out if a native species on this survey planet is intelligent.
Our protagonist is a Hellspark, a culture which trains its children early in all other human(oid) languages and cultures. Hellspark people, as a result, can switch nearly effortlessly between cultures and as a result often work as merchants or judges to settle intercultural problems.
She is on a mission to figure out this whole intelligence business for the survey team, smooth over problems, be hilariously inventive in settling cultural disputes, and she is also accompanied by the second- or third-best character in the book: Her spaceship’s computer, Lord Magarete Lynn (a useful name that will, implicitly, teach you about names and titles in several other cultures in this book, if you pay attention). Adorable, adorkable, lovable Maggie, learning about human behaviour. I’m very into spaceships who assist their captain, so: yes. Much yes.
The one weakness of this book is that the villain is obvious and shallow, and the mystery easily solved – but the book continues for quite a bit after the formal resolution, and I’m not much of a mystery reader, so I mostly ignored the plot arc in favour of the worldbuilding and the delightful characters.
Because, and this is important: Everybody is having fun. The protagonist is a whirlwind, slightly Milesian (though not angsty), and is just enjoying the hell out of everything. And, following her, so did I.