I knew of Steven Gould primarily from his juvenile novels – Jumper, Wildside, etc. I was pleased when he finally brought his clear, accessible voice to a more adult book, and I remember Helm with some fondness, though it does tend to run together for me with Larry Niven’s Destiny Road, which appeared around the same time, had a vaguely similar backstory, and also had a yellowish cover.
What I had forgotten, apparently was just how aikido-focused Helm is. Unfortunately, I’m not really interested in martial arts, and this comes across, more than anything, like the work of a fan who’s keen to tell the world all about his new passion. It’s a bit tedious, in particular because I just don’t find battle scenes interesting, and here we get all the hand-to-hand detail an aikido aficionado could hope for. More to the point, though, all the aikido gets in the way of the story. The characters are developed, and are, in fact, somewhat more mature than Gould’s others up until then. But the story is largely a vehicle to get them from one fight scene to another. The story’s at its best when Gould can’t find a way to shoehorn physical conflict into the scene (or not too much, anyway).
It’s not as good a book as I recall, but it’s still fairly good. Gould’s prose is still clear, the characters still engaging. And, if you’re a martial arts fan, it’s probably all gravy. If you couldn’t care less about sensei and uke, there’s still a good story to be found here. Just be prepared to skim the play-by-play.