#SciFiMonth Read-along: Golden Witchbreed – week one

SciFiMonth Read-Along: Golden Witchbreed

You know I can’t resist a read-along. It was SciFiMonth that first lured me into one, and it’s a tradition I’m delighted to continue. This year, we’re reading Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed, a classic of cut-throat politics and cultural tensions as a junior diplomat gets out of her depth on the dangerously compelling world of Orthe.

I first read Golden Witchbreed a few years ago, thanks to Sandstone78 masterminding a buddy read on LibraryThing. I’ve been wanting to revisit it ever since and now the time has come I’m excited and terrified in equal measure to be sharing it for SciFiMonth.

Golden Witchbreed was written in the early 80s. Surprisingly, given its vintage, it’s dominated by female characters, casually includes characters of colour (and an Earth no longer dominated by Western cultures), has a major character with a disability, and sapphic undertones. Stir in what is practically epic fantasy world-building and it’s not hard to see why I liked it. Sure, it has a few inexplicable choices and – in this first week alone – manages commentary on gender that swung me from delight to despair. But I trust it will do better as Lynne Christie, junior diplomat and empath, becomes better acquainted with Orthe.

This first week we’re discussing Parts One and Two, as Christie arrives on Orthe, wins permission to travel the Hundred Thousand telestres, survives assassination attempts and earns a nickname…

Apostrophes and italics everywhere! What’s your approach to pronouncing the challenges SFF writers throw at us?

Me? I, uh, make it up. Katharine Kerr has likely over-influenced my defaults thanks to growing up on Deverry books and her detailed pronunciation guide. Sometimes I randomly apply pronunciation based on a language I speak, but other times it’s pretty arbitrary. If I know it’s based on a language I don’t speak (and the author didn’t provide any clues, tch) I’ll google to try and get an idea. Absolute worst case? I confess, I elide it. I’m not reading aloud: I don’t have to know how to say it. But I’m a much happier reader when I believe I could at least try.

Thankfully – in spite of all the italics and apostrophes – Orthean doesn’t seem that hard so far.

‘For my part, I prefer aliens that look alien… Humanoid aliens, they’re trouble.’


Physical differences – and similarities – trouble Christie and the Ortheans this week, but how do you feel? Would you rather your aliens looked more or less like us? Do you think Gentle is giving us a warning about what to expect?

Based on how we human beans seem to be wired, some similarities would surely be comforting? I take Christie’s point about not being surprised by the cultural differences if physical similarities haven’t lulled you into a false sense of security, but it’s nice to know you are actually looking at another entity’s face and not their elbow.

On the other hand, I think Christie has a way more generous definition of similar than I do. Obviously I like the sound of the scales and the nictitating membrane, but having spent an evening with someone who had obscured the whites of their eyes with full-coverage contacts, it’s really fucking disconcerting.

The danger for me is less about the physical similarities than the cultural ones. Christie quickly slips into making assumptions about Orthe less because the Ortheans look vaguely human and more because their culture doesn’t feel alien. It’s pure epic fantasy, right? Four-legged rider beasts are not horses, but… they’re not a big jump. Actual swords. Cities and markets. Courts with politics and functionaries.

The danger for Christie – and for us as readers – is how keen our brains are to fill in the gaps with familiar assumptions. Haltern tries to correct her understanding of the telestre (“Land, people; people, land – the same thing”), and is horrified by the idea of owning land; but it’s only when Ruric firmly rejects the idea about making Geren’s telestre her home that I really felt I glimpsed the depth of connection – and realised how much there was left to unpack.

I have a whole lot more thoughts, but as they get spoilery fast I’ll stop here for now.

There’s a lot of rapid world-building as Christie is thrown in at the deep end. What aspects (if any) stand out or intrigue you?

All of it! I am head over heels in love all over again. I feel like we walked into a world and found it full of rich characters getting on with their lives. It has a pleasing solidity. The fundamental building blocks may be paper-thin – Orthe has swords, grain, paper, iron, the wheel, sailing ships – but it still has a strong sense of culture and of place. It feels like a fantasy world, I guess; but a fantasy world that has discovered they are not alone in the universe and is now carefully considering whether it wants to do cross-over or would really rather go back to ignoring the skies except in dragon season.

I’ll pick two things to talk about briefly. The first is an example of how Mary Gentle casually reveals aspects of the culture in a sideways manner. The scene when a woman gives birth in public is shocking to Christie; but it tells us how utterly communal Orthean living is – in the sense of no privacy, perhaps, but also in the sense of how rooted in their community each of them is. No Ortheans stand alone (or perhaps that should be ‘few’, given Ruric’s complicated relationship with her telestre).

The second is gender and the ashiren. This stood out for me initially because woah, non-binary characters in 1980-something; sadly, the follow-up – Christie misgendering Maric (although perhaps she will do better now she has been called out on it); and Ruric being bewildered about how humans could tell someone had left adolescence if they were sexed at birth – was a little disappointing (Ruric’s attitude makes sense in her context, but… it also strongly reasserts a gender binary).

I’d like to re-translate this along the lines of JY Yang’s Tensorate, but I don’t think the text supports it. While the ashiren may be non-binary, it’s not clear – and I don’t recall – whether they get to choose their gender. Ruric’s attitude raises a whole heap of questions about what happens if someone doesn’t assume a gender, too.

‘He’s a good man,’ she said. ‘Don’t trust him.’

Every friendly Orthean warns Christie not to trust the others. What are your first impressions of Christie’s new alien allies (Geren, Haltern, Ruric and Dalzielle/Suthafiori) – and what do you think about Orthean intrigues?

I’m shamelessly going to skip this other than to say AAAAAAAAH I LOVE THESE CHARACTERS and AAAAAAAH that quote alone would sell me on reading this book. I love the implication of admiration and mistrust: “I respect that person, and I know what they’re capable of” – and the questions it raises about the speaker. Can they be trusted? What game are they playing?

Intrigue. Even the Orthean word for it doesn’t entirely translate; it’s a game, a way of life, and they play it deadly seriously.

Christie S’aranth survives a second assassination attempt and gains a nickname – do you think the shift in how she is perceived will be a good thing? Would you trust Maric and keep ke close?

Christie’s protection of Maric really took me by surprise this time. Christie is soft-hearted – she doesn’t trust Maric, but she won’t let ke be punished for actions she doesn’t feel ke can be held responsible for. It looks a lot like weakness and a distaste for violence – especially from someone who refuses to wear a sword – so I think the shift in perception probably is a good thing in the sense that Christie will likely be taken more seriously now.

On the flip side, that might have just made her a threat…

Talk from other telestres

But wait, this is a read-along – what did everybody else have to say? This is kinda exciting as I’m not 100% on who is reading along until their posts go live, so bear with me while I play catch up!

  • Week 1 | Book Forager | Dear Geek Place | 

Fancy joining in? You’re more than welcome – just drop a comment on the host’s post and/or on the Goodreads group each week with a link to your thoughts; join us in the comments; or tag us on Twitter @scifimonth #GoldenWitchbreed

Discussion Schedule

A SciFiMonth read-along is a buddy read with weekly discussions via blog posts, chat in the comments and/or tweets. Read at your own pace, but please limit discussion to the week’s chapters – no spoilers for future weeks or for the sequel Ancient Light!

  • Friday 6th November | Part One & Two
  • Friday 13th November | Part Three – Part Five
  • Friday 20th November | Part Six & Seven
  • Friday 27th November | Part Eight

You’re not obliged to post on a Friday, but please don’t post any sooner to give the crew a chance to all reach a similar point before we start chatting. I’ll aim to post prompts on Goodreads on Sunday each week – if anyone else fancies hosting a week, just shout.