Alien Influences - Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I wasn't expecting to enjoy this at all. There's something about the word "alien" that's irredeemably naff, even more so than "spaceship" - maybe it has too many overtones of barking abductees wearing tinfoil beanies. The first few pages didn't increase my confidence much, either, with a painfully obvious murder "mystery" that had clearly started life as a short story. However, once that was out of the way, some original ideas trickled in and the book suddenly became interesting.
An expert in extraterrestrial psychology is called in to a rich drug-farming colony to investigate a series of murders. The murders seem to mimic the coming-of-age rituals of the local alien species (the Dancers), which involve removal of the heart, lungs and hands - several children have been found dismembered in this way. Of course, it's not as simple as all that, but the culprits are uncovered in fairly short order, much to the relief of the investigator, whose poor judgement had previously led to the virtual extermination of another alien species in similar circumstances. As his guilt is relentlessly laid on with a trowel throughout this section, the conclusion was quite a relief to me, too.
The rest of the book follows the fortunes of the surviving children, separated and scattered across the galaxy, and the aftereffects of the Dancers' influence. This was very interesting for a while, as it's not that often that you get to see the "what happened next?" of a concluded murder investigation, and there were a lot of intriguing mysteries about the aliens' behaviour. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that there wasn't very much of a plot; the introduction of the evil art collector was rather clumsy and contrived. It was disappointing, too, to find that the answers to the mysteries were not that great either, and their resolutions seemed rather makeshift and hurried.
Overall, the book seemed like just a few short stories cobbled together with no real arc-plot for coherence. The idea was interesting, but really not that well developed; for all the hints and mysteries, the revelations were either anticlimactic or unconvincing. The best thing I can say about it is that it's quite short, and it's better than its title.