Book cover: Orthe - Chronicles of Carrick V by Mary Gentle (Golden Witchbreed / Ancient Light)Ancient Light continues the epic world-building of Golden Witchbreed, giving us a good look at the Southern Continent to explain the fragile balance of power before the action returns to the Hundred Thousand for the devastating final act.

This is great stuff, but ultimately a tough sell and not one for readers seeking happy escapism. I think Ancient Light is a book that needs to be read in the context of the time it was written (the 1980s) to be fully appreciated – while it works on its own terms, the themes gain resonance when you keep corporate greed and the Cold War in mind.

Ten years after Golden Witchbreed, Lynne Christie is finally back on Orthe. Now working for a multicorporate in the hope of limiting the damage she fears they’ll do to Orthean society, Lynne is plunged into the intricacies of negotiating access to Witchbreed artifacts, which the Company wants to get its hands on at any cost.

Lynne’s gift of empathy is a burden this time around, and she is further undermined by a mysterious illness that has erased key memories from her previous visit to Orthe (this was rather confusing – it is always awkward when the reader knows more than the main character, and shouting at the page doesn’t help anyone). Caught between her multicorporate employer (and its ambitious representatives) and her love affair with Orthe, Lynne can only let everyone down in trying to broker a compromise that achieves a lesser evil. As any Lib Dem can tell you, saying it could have been much worse you know doesn’t win popularity contests.

The themes of corporate greed, corporate evil and corporate might are entirely unsubtle, but I found myself unexpectedly empathising – to a degree(!) – with Molly and Corazon, the Company’s key representatives. While I couldn’t like their choices, I recognised the context they worked within and understood how they arrived at (most of) their decisions (have I spent too many years trying to manage outcomes in a chaotic, unethical industry? Err, probably). I particularly liked that the novel put grown-ups in difficult positions and demanded they respond as adults – there are no easy answers – vs traditional heroic fantasy, which often features a teenage saviour fixing the world with little more than good intentions and MacGuffins.

By contrast, Pramila and Lynne’s idealism and good intentions are a weakness, and Lynne’s refusal to accept that working for the Company makes her complicit in the consequences makes for an uncomfortable journey and some excellent confrontations with old friends. It also sets up the awkward theme of the white saviour – only (thankfully) to deconstruct it rather than embrace it. It’s hard not to feel for Lynne – she genuinely cares, and wants only the best – but her actions and convictions often left me frustrated (not least because I ‘knew’ things she had forgotten). However, I liked that she was repeatedly called on her (flaky) loyalties and logic and I admired her tenacity, even when I wanted to shake her. I also liked that in the end it is Pramila’s naïveté and smuggling of high-tech weapons to the Southern Continent – rather than the Company’s machinations – that unleashes the conflict that Lynne fears.

All of which goes to say that unpleasant people make difficult decisions, likeable people make terrible mistakes, and the world goes to hell in a hand-basket.

My main frustration, in the end, was the bogeymen. For my money, the Harantish Witchbreed descendants get far too little page time to explain their ambitions and their attitudes. Calil is – briefly – a riveting character, before reverting into a cat-stroking Bond villain and being written off as crazy. I liked that Gentle punctured a number of comfy assumptions about her created world (taking a hard look at the impact of Hundred Thousand foreign policy on the Coastal Ortheans, for example), but she wasn’t really interested in moral ambiguities for her Orthean factions and I think they are the poorer for it. So we get bogeymen. However, as the main thrust of the tale is really the unintended awful consequences of high tech foreigners / aliens with avarice and entitlement issues interacting with civilizations they don’t really understand, I can forgive her.

Overall, very good stuff, unless you like happy endings.

****1/2