Science fiction and fantasy tales have long dealt with the search for identity. It is a common motif in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, Robert Heinlein's Double Star, and John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Who Goes There?, as well as Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear, James Blish's A Case of Conscience, and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. Now, Mission Child (Avon, $20, 0380974568) by Maureen F. McHugh joins this pantheon of precedent-setting novels.

Mission Child bears some striking thematic resemblances to LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness and obviously owes some debt to historical accounts of women who went to war disguised as men, but this is an entirely different point of view.

Young Janna lives on an alien world where the Earthers' technology threatens the local flora and fauna and has cost 14-year-old Janna her family. Despite the violence and conflict, this is a vibrant and warm coming-of-age story, where off-world artifacts and alien cultures figure prominently as Janna negotiates the dividing line between child and adult and between female and male. Disguising herself as a young boy, Janna journeys forward in both spirit and adventure as she grows through her love for a dangerous criminal and the discovery of her dead child's spirit. She also overcomes both the advantage and disadvantage of her linguistic abilities. Truly this is a novel that will arouse strong emotional responses while enticing with its sense of adventure and wonder.

In a lighter and more entertaining vein, the female protagonist of Holly Lisle's Diplomacy of Wolves, Kait Galweigh, discovers a Sabir plot to assassinate the entire House of Galweigh at her cousin's royal wedding. Kait's escape involves her in battle with both mortal and demonic attackers, and she ultimately must rely upon her secret family power whose disclosure may result in her death. The rebirth of the magical energy that she controls is the only salvation available to defeat the evil from the shadow world as the great Houses of Sabir and Galweigh battle for control of their world, Calimekka. This is the first in a projected trilogy of epic fantasy adventure of sorcery, conspiracies, wolves, and deception.

Starfarers (Tor, $25.95, 0312860374) by Poul Anderson marks the return of one of the grand masters as author Anderson plots an exciting hard science fiction story of a starfaring civilization and Earth's attempt to send a human diplomatic mission over 60,000 light years to contact them.

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