The story is set on the planet Flashfever, so named for the violent thunderstorms that occur with great regularity. (Think Florida in August on a planet-wide scale.) Because of the constant presence of electricity in the environment, most of the lifeforms on the planet have evolved various ways of dealing with surplus charge, from trees that act as lightning rods, to piezo-electric plants, to electric eel-like predators. About the only creatures on the planet that don't seem to use electricity are the Spookjes, feathered humanoids who may or may not be sentient. That's what an extra-solar survey team has been sent there to find out. If the Sprookjes are sentient, then they will be allowed to determine how to deal with interstellar civilization. If not, then Flashfever will be deeded to whomever can best exploit it. There are three conditions a species must meet to be declared sentient. They must be able to communicate somehow, they must produce artifacts, and they must produce art of some kind.
The team consists of several dozen beings, all from different planets and/or planetary cultures, each with their own language and customs. This slows the book down at times, because Kagen spends an awful lot of time describing the differences in the various languages, especially the body language of the speakers. It's certainly relevant to the plot, but at times it's just too much. Given the number of characters, each of whom speaks a different language, it's nigh on impossible to keep all the customs and variations straight, fascinating though they can be. Kagen also isn't clear as to whether all these off-worlders are Earth-descended, or Trek-style aliens (where each species descends from a common ancestor), or some combination, or none of the above. The terms "human" and "homo sapiens" are used to refer to all, but it's also clear that if the Sprookjes are found to be sentient the terms will also apply to them as well. It's puzzling, because if they are all Earth-descended, then it just seems like the various languages and customs have diverged an awful lot, even given that communication between worlds is difficult.
Anyway, the team has been on-planet for three years, and has yet to find evidence that the Sprookjes meet any of the necessary conditions. They can't find any artifacts or art, and the only evidence of language is that each team member now has a Sprookje following him or her around mimicking everything they say. Apart from the mimicking, the Sprookjes say nothing. The team's commander is becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress, and is on the verge of issuing a final report stating that the Sprookjes are not sentient despite the fact that everyone on the team seems to feel intuitively that they are.
Into this situation flies Tocohl Susamo, who is the Mary Sueiest member of a race of Mary Sues. She an interstellar trader with fiery hair and gorgeous eyes, who speaks every single language in the galaxy flawlessly, right down to the requisite gestures and body language. No sooner does she hit camp than the team's Klingon-equivalent character pledges that he will be her protector. It's she, of course, who eventually solves the mystery of the Sprookjes, figuring out in a matter of a few weeks what the survey team couldn't in three years. She does have some help, in the form of her remarkably perceptive ship's computer, Maggy, whose own sentience is the subject of much debate.
The plot meanders a bit. There's some stuff about an off-world conspiracy to explain some of the problems the team has been having, but it seems that the evil doers are a pretty inept lot. Then book takes a sort of left turn near the end, and most of the stuff having to do with the bad guys gets dropped. Tocohl has to answer for some rule bending she did, but that all sort of comes from out in left field, and there's really no suspense generated that Tocohl might actually be in trouble over it.
I enjoyed the focus on language and communication, despite the endless detail, and what an alien might, in fact, view as art. It's something that tends to be handwaved in a lot of first contact stories. The mystery of the Sprookjes is a good one, and the unwrapping of it is developed pretty well. I liked Maggy a lot. Maggy turns out to be a far more interesting character than Tocohl. Tocohl is just too damned able at everything. It gets boring fast. There's also a lot of stuff in terms of world creation that I just can't seem to suspend my disbelief for, such as the massive handwaving regarding Sprookje biology. Plus, I would have liked a bit more info on the interstellar itself. It's one thing to state that there is this amazing diversity of language and culture throughout the galaxy, but it would've been very nice to get a paragraph ot two on how it came to be that way.
You know, any fan who would smack Gary Sheffield in the mouth during a game has got to be eight kinds of stupid.
"If Jerry Lewis were playing the lead in the "Sadaharu Oh Story," this is what he'd look like at the plate." - Eric Neel on Nori Nakamura
I finally got to see Nakamura hit the other night. He stands as straight up as I've ever seen anyone stand while waiting for the the pitcher to deliver, body and bat all precisely vertical, with not even his knees flexed. It's a bit like Yaz in his heyday, but even Yaz wasn't this rigid. Then as the ball approaches, he lifts his front leg up and back, much like Sadaharu Oh did, or Mel Ott. For that moment, he looks a bit like a crane or a flamingo. Then he drives forward off the back leg as the bat flails and hitches across the plate, and amazingly enough he can actually make contact with the ball while doing this. It's all very entertaining.