Katharine Kerr – Snare

The short version: some good character work (especially on the lead women), clear definition of 4 cultures on an alien world (1 alien) including different takes on gender and sexuality, and interesting ideas (cultural isolation, culture exchange, managing the impact of high tech on low tech society, and re-casting science as magic). On the down side, it's flabby, I couldn't help but feel it was lazy in the world-building, and it's overly simplistic in its conclusions. Ultimately entertaining but not stellar.

For those who can bear it:

This was a challenging read for the wrong reasons: I am too familiar with Kerr's more-famous Deverry books, and one weakness of Snare is where it leans heavily on the same underpinnings. This was particularly noticeable to me in the speech patterns, which – as ever with Kerr's work – are used (successfully) to distinguish different cultures and races, but are here very close to the Deverry equivalents. It is likewise a little too easy to equate the Kazraki with the Deverrians (a strict patriarchy with a warlike bent), the Tribes with the Westfolk (a mystic-led horse folk who are nominally egalitarian but actually have quite strict gender roles) and the Chof with the Horsekin (an alien matriarchy currently struggling with internal religious and political divisions).

Scratch beneath the surface of what feels like paint-by-numbers world-building, and there are significant differences here to the Deverry books. This is science fiction masquerading as fantasy – an alien world settled by a lost fleet of human starships, whose descendants have (deliberately) forgotten their origins. Ancient tech has been re-cast as magic (or demonic sorcery), and ancient racial divisions have been preserved with carefully constructed isolationist policies.

The interesting bits explore the same ideas as The Steerswoman (science as magic) and Golden Witchbreed (culture clash and the impact of high technology on simple societies), and while it succeeds in the first, it doesn't do justice to the second. The novel slowly unpicks the concepts of magic with much of the novel's arc focusing on the impact this has on a Tribal mystic (Ammadin) who begins with a crisis of faith and learns enough of the truth to realise how great a spiritual challenge she truly faces. As noted for The Steerswoman, I do enjoy science-as-magic settings, and I quite enjoyed how this played out.

Intertwined with it is the question of how what we know helps us define ourselves. Both Ammadin and Kazraki assassin Zayn must confront the fact that they are the products of genetic engineering. Ammadin helps Zayn realise that his people's beliefs in demon-spawn may not be entirely accurate; his response and personal growth is fascinating (if perhaps a little simplistic in terms of the psychology; but Kerr has always been big on forgiveness and redemption, as evidenced by her near-total rewrite of the villains in Darkspell for the author's preferred edition). But intriguingly, both share a fury at the fact that their innate superhuman abilities are the product of human engineering, which I find interesting food for thought (as – not being religious, and not living in a pre-scientific society – I'm not sure why it's better to be 'cursed' or 'blessed' with an ability by a god – especially if that then damns you in your own eyes – rather than being tinkered with by other people).

All this loosely takes place within the framework of a run-of-the-mill hero's quest in which an evil Emperor has murdered his close kin and instituted a reign of terror. A Kazraki cavalry officer seeks to find an escaped heir to lead a civil war and be a better ruler; Zayn completes the triangle by being the assassin set on their trail – but has no idea he is tracking down his two oldest friends. It's interesting only because the heir, Jezro, is one of the more interesting characters in the novel: deeply changed by a life on the run, highly intelligent, and almost the most moral character in the book (although he still fails to consider asking Zayn and Stronghunter Man to capture fleeing 'sorceror' and rapist Soutan rather than killing him).

The aliens, on the other hand, slowly emerge as a fascinating society. Highly gendered (in spite of their ungendered adolescence), both intelligent and warlike, we eventually gain insight into their politics and religion. Water Woman in particular is an interesting blend of emotion (her guilt at holding back information from Ammadin) and cunning (her interest in Kazraki religion); it is a shame that Herbgather Woman is so under-drawn as to be almost a side-show and that Stronghunter Man becomes a hairy-chested male stereotype ('There are two types of people in the world: those who kill, and those who eat' – err, right).

The novel ends up feeling very long, each section (and especially the middle) being a bit flabby, with a few too many meanders. While each twist contributes to our understanding of present and past, and helps shape Zayn or prod reluctant heir Jezro towards his destiny, it would have worked better for me if it had been trimmed down. Perhaps I've become too big a fan of Melissa Scott's economical flair in defining complex societies and politics – and delivering a fine adventure on the back of them – in a surprisingly short number of pages. In spite of the length, Snare ultimately takes the simplistic line that if we'd just all talk to each other, we'd probably get along – which is a lovely sentiment, and one I'd love to agree with, but is a little harder to swallow now than in my idealistic 20s.

On the up side, I enjoyed the core characters – particularly no-nonsense Ammadin, feisty Loy Millou and introspective Jezro Khan. I also liked that they didn't share a point of view on each other – Loy (and, unexpectedly, Soutan) shows us the brutality of the Kazrakis, rather than just presenting Zayn as a conflicted hero. Loy rightly reflects – repeatedly – that he is terrifying, and continually questions Ammadin's attraction to him. Loy's own desire to punish her daughter's rapist is a counterpoint to her otherwise high ideals; she too has a line past which she embraces violence. There's a fine balance here, as often in Kerr's character work. She makes it easy to accept what should be a troubling point of view, and then reminds us just how uncivilised it is (see also: Rhodry in the Deverry books).

The pay-off is all in the second half, and it is worth the wait (belatedly grabbing an extra half star from me; even pedestrian Katharine Kerr easily merits 3 stars for enjoyable prose and characters and once I got into it it was harder to put down). But this will be enjoyed far more by those who haven't read (and won't be distracted by) the Deverry books, and who read this before tackling more nuanced and challenging views on culture exchange such as Golden Witchbreed.

Final aside: much much much travelling. Slogging through the grasslands quotient is high; if they're not travelling, they're stopping off briefly before they get back on the road.