I didn’t mean to read this, but I’m ever so glad I did – it’s an excellent book and a great introduction to Mary Gentle.
Earth has mastered FTL travel, and sent diplomats and xeno-teams all over the galaxy to establish relations with our alien neighbours. Relatively inexperienced Lynne Christie is sent to the enigmatic world of Orthe / Carrick V when the previous envoy dies – in part, she soon realises, because she is expendable.
Androgynous, subtle, and close enough to human for boundaries to slip, the Ortheans have a deep-seated fear of high technology based on legends of past holocaust under the Golden Witchbreed, but their ruler recognises the opportunities offered by trade with Earth. Sent out to the provinces to convince the tribes that Earth isn’t to be feared, Christie soon realises how very little she truly understands about Orthe – and how much danger she is actually in.
I really enjoyed this. It’s well-written, with charismatic characters and fabulous world-building – we discover Orthe alongside Christie, and there’s enough detail stashed away here for the world to feel convincing and larger than we see (and for this to be tantalising – I want to know what’s on the far side of the world, and how the barbarian tribes of the Barrens work, and whether the deserts south of Kel Harantish really are empty).
With an anti-tech population in the Southland, where the main action takes place, this has a strong flavour of fantasy about it – there’s no magic, but a mythic past and a violent, Byzantine present with no technology never quite feels like pure SF either. I didn’t feel this was a problem, although I would have liked an extra layer to the narrative providing us with more insight into Earth – the clues seeded in the text hint at entirely predictable problems (population explosion; climate change; resource exhaustion) being replaced by an interesting new one – not being able to cope with the rate of (territorial) expansion and change fuelled by FTL travel. There’s a whole other set of novels embedded in that context that were never written that I find I’d also love to read.
Instead, we have a near-human race who have a devotion to the land and an all-embracing communal attitude within their tribal structure (the Orthean rural attitudes are properly alien when viewed from the context of when they were written in 1983). Yet they are violent when roused, with a mercenary who fulfils his contracts being due the highest respect, and their politics are intricate and merciless. Orthean society is complex enough that it takes most of the book for the inherent contradictions to begin to come together.
The focus, though, is on Christie and through her on the Orthean fear of techology and the Golden Witchbreed – an Empire that destroyed itself with its own weaponry, releasing its Orthean slaves to inherit Orthe. Christie’s travels across the Southland and beyond, driven out by those who fear offworld influence and claim she is Witchbreed, arguably make this an epic exercise in world-building. But the core characters are strongly drawn, and Christie’s mental state – from confidence to terror to anguish to determination and back again – is convincing. She both does and doesn’t take it all in her stride, and I liked her all the more for it.
There is a side helping of Spot the Traitor to keep the plot moving, which I passed with flying colours (and some regret. I knew that if I were building this society, one of 2 characters would be the traitor; I was right, and I really didn’t want to be, leaving me in the bizarre situation of knowing any other answer would have left me feeling emotionally under-served, but feeling sad that it had to work out that way. However, I intuit this may set me up well for dealing with what gets handed out in the sequel Ancient Light).
I find myself eager to read the sequel, which I suspect takes this diplomatic travelogue into the realm of more conventional fantasy threat (i.e. world-threatening ancient powers), although I understand it wasn’t a popular sequel. In the meantime, gold stars all round for great ingredients, ruthless egalitarianism (no problem spotting strong female characters here) and a knack for turning things on their head.
Edit: I do feel I should pop a ‘your mileage may vary’ on this. There’s a reasonably high Slogging Through The Mud quotient (Christie starts on a field tour and ends up on the run; mud literally features in the fens, although it is later replaced by snow and then water), and I’ve subsequently tripped over a reasonable number of complaints that this is all world building. Err, yes, it largely is. But very good world building 😉