#SciFiMonth Read-along: Golden Witchbreed – week two

SciFiMonth Read-Along: Golden Witchbreed

With Crown permission to tour the telestres, Christie settles in to Roehmonde to try and convince them of the benefits of off world contact. But Roehmonde has domestic problems that technology can’t solve, and it soon becomes clear that anything that promotes change poses a threat to stability…

Welcome back to the SciFiMonth read-along of Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle. This week we’re discussing Parts Three through Five, as Christie goes on the run for her life after getting up close and personal with the ruling family of Roehmonde and being treated to a taste of Wellhouse justice.

Beware spoilers – there are a couple of major surprises this week!

Last week, Christie gained a nickname. This week, she takes an arykei. Were you surprised by her choice (and who she chose)? …and how did you feel about Falkyr’s choices in light of their relationship?

Even knowing in advance that Christie would take an Orthean lover, I’d completely forgotten who it was. Consequently, I was all shades of surprised, especially given how gruff and sarcastic Falkyr had seemed up to that point. I feel there were zero narrative clues in his favour vs say the charge in her friendship with Ruric.

Once they’ve hooked up, Christie mentions how much time they spend time – some of it more productively than others, heh – but… I still didn’t get any sense of the depth of their connection. So I was entirely unsurprised when his loyalty was given to his family and telestre; there’s been a lot of emphasis on the primary importance of those to an Orthean, even if Christie missed it.

A little bit of me wants to be critical of the sojourn in Roehmonde. The narrative is really quite sketchy – this scene happens, then another – but neither the events nor the characters they introduce really hang together until Christie is arrested. It’s all a hazy WTF right up until it turns into OHFUCKNO.

On the other hand, this perfectly underscores that we are stuck in Christie’s head. The failure here isn’t Mary Gentle’s craft – it’s Christie’s. She hasn’t been paying enough attention (and as a rereader, I can see the hints scattered through the text that show how many mistakes she’s making). So instead of being critical, I’m quietly impressed, even though I found it a frustrating set of chapters in some ways.

There’s a lot of games of ochmir played this week. How good a metaphor for Southland politics do you find it?

I really like ochmir. I would like to play ochmir. I love a strategy board game – although I’m not usually very good at them – and this is like Go meets Reversi with added complexity.

…as a metaphor, I think it’s very on point. Surrounding pieces to convert them to your colour feels instinctively right for a culture that depends on community and persuasion. There clearly are wars in Orthe – Ruric has put down a rebellion – but I get the sense that most issues are solved by talking to find consensus. Plus the changing colours (rather than taking pieces off the board as you would in Go) sort of reminds me of adoption between telestres too – whatever the Roehmonder Wellhouses may preach.

In ochmir – as in life? – you can’t be sure what you’ll get when you change someone’s mind: a minion, a general or a maverick. This parallels neatly to notions of social mobility; with Orthe having a fairly flat society with periodically-elected leaders (…which okay, there’s no sense of choosing to promote a piece in ochmir) so in theory anyone can aspire to high office.

But mostly? It’s just a darn complicated game where you need to be thinking many steps ahead, constantly watching your back and trying not to get outmanoeuvred. And that sounds very Orthean!

What was your reaction to Blaize? What did you think about Christie allowing him to live and tag along? 

I had forgotten just how much of an asshat Blaize n’ri n’suth Meduenin is (I know, I know, I’ve forgotten a LOT). While I could try to argue it’s better to keep an eye on the man who wants to kill you, I don’t honestly think he would have followed them north of the Wall (I’m still giggling that they went north of the Wall; move aside, Mr Martin, the lady got here first). Christie’s odd choices strike again. Here I am a little critical – even though we’re in her head, I don’t really feel she explains herself on this one. To be fair, by this point she’s sick, exhausted, and malnourished – her judgement can be expected to be getting squiffy!

…and for all my side-eye that he has a place in the narrative, I like Blaize. Yes, he’s an asshat; but he’s got a dry sense of humour and a no-nonsense pragmatic approach that endears him to me. Even if he did steal their stuff and abandon them when the opportunity arose (at least he didn’t try stabbing them on his way out).

Fenborn! Why do you think they took Christie’s party? …and why do you think they let them go?

We’re straight back to Christie’s narrow perspective, aren’t we? There are just enough hints from Theluk that there’s history between the fenborn and the Hundred Thousand – by which I mean I get the impression they’d happily rip each other’s throats out if it weren’t for a treaty so old Theluk isn’t really sure they actually exist.

Given what we learn about Orthean memory, that’s… presumably a territory thing. Theluk isn’t sure they exist.

But the fenborn seem pretty clear where they stand. I got the distinct impression they were willing to let Christie go because she was neither Southlander nor Witchbreed; I don’t think they were going to show the others the same favour. That old wives’ tale about them flooring their hall with the skins of Witchbreed and Southlanders… well, it glittered gold…

I like how the world-building expands this week. The Wall divides one race into Southlanders and so-called barbarians; the fenborn are related but distinct. This is a world with a lot of history – and a lot of distinct cultures; it’s good to get a glimpse (even as we try to get to grips with the Southland).

There are intriguing hints of the mystical creeping in with Theluk’s intuition and endurance as an Earthspeaker and the revelation of memory-dreams. How has this changed your understanding – or expectations – of Orthe?


I had a whole question lined up about static societies and social controls and then along come Maric’s memories and BOOM well there we are. If you can literally remember being enslaved by a race of gold-skinned overlords who did their damndest to destroy the world, I can understand how you might be a bit sketchy about adopting technology.

We’ve seen the other. Your way. And it doesn’t work

Back to my comment on world-building: hell yes my understanding of Orthe changed this week… and I love how it’s tiptoeing around the edges of magic vs technology. I can explain away Theluk’s weather sense as an intuitive understanding of her homeland – it falters fast when she leaves familiar turf – and her endurance as being that of an old soldier (yes, Christie, you’re just soft). But we also have reincarnation with partial memories of past lives… which is fascinating.

Naturally, I now have all the questions about how this influences pretty much everything; although I don’t have a lot more sympathy for Howice and Arad, who just made me rage.

Christie begins to realise how little she has truly understood about Orthe, and the Southland in particular. Now that you’ve got to know her, do you think the Dominion were right to send her? What is your assessment of her as a person and a diplomat?

Ahahaha, no. Her empathy has mostly gotten her into trouble, and her inexperience is flapping in the wind. It seemed like amazing good luck when Suthafiori was so accommodating; now I wonder whether the T’An Suthai Telestre was deliberately hanging her out to dry. Christie has missed so many cues and ended up in such deep water – which has been a lot of fun, don’t get me wrong, but is hardly going to make the Dominion happy.

But I like her as a person. She’s observant and clever – if awfully naive and not particularly consistent at paying attention. Even if I didn’t really see her feelings for Falkyr take shape, I absolutely understand her feeling of bone-deep betrayal. But she can be crafty, too – I loved how she handled the Kirriach enquiries about trading for weapons. And I have to admire how she keeps going this week, all persistence and pragmatism. While I question at least half of her decisions, I don’t think they make her a bad person. I admire her commitment to avoiding violence wherever possible, and her willingness to give people second chances. She’s a good egg, in hot water.

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!

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.