#SciFiMonth Read-along: Golden Witchbreed – week three

SciFiMonth Read-Along: Golden Witchbreed

Christie survived the Barrens and is reunited with her Orthean allies at the winter court in Peir-Dadeni. But while her enemies slide free of the claims against them, Christie once again finds herself accused of a terrible crime. Mistrustful, fearing for her life, she goes back on the run…

Welcome back to the SciFiMonth read-along of Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle. This week we’re discussing Parts Six and Seven, as Christie is forced out of the Southland and meets the mysterious Hexenmeister of Kasabaarde. Questions this week are set by Mayri the BookForager; expect spoilers.

Christie meets Ruric’s ashiren Rodion. Care to share any of your thoughts and/or feelings about ke or kir storyline?



I’m so glad that Christie has finally been forced to confront her dubious attitude to ashiren and gender. I was growling at her mental wriggling over this; and at least she has now had the honesty to admit her (obvious to us) discomfort with thinking beyond the binary.

For me, this is one of the ways this book shows its age: we’re reading from a time where SF assumes that humanity will be broader-minded in the future. While we’ve had clues seeded in the narrative that this is true in terms of race (the West no longer dominates Earth; the xeno-team are not all white) and sexuality (Christie doesn’t twitch on hearing Hal’s arykei was male, although ARGH he is also dead, so the gays are buried as soon as their existence is confirmed), Christie has stumbled over gender from the start.

This week, she can’t duck it.

None of which is about Rodion, sorry. I find – on this read – that I am drawn to the difficult characters: reliable assassin Blaize (very reliable if you understand his frame of reference) and now prickly ashiren Rodion. Rodion is pretty unapologetically unlikeable to begin with – sour, sulky, confrontational, lazy even, having to be pushed into fulfilling kir duties as l’ri-an.

It’s easy to dismiss Rodion as a sulky teenager, but it’s been made clear that Ortheans don’t have the same expectations of ashiren that humans have of children and teenagers; and from what we’ve seen of Maric, sulking is a human – rather than Orthean – experience. Instead, we have to understand ke through kir upbringing, where ke has been isolated and bullied. So I feel for ke.

What stands out for me is Rodion’s blunt-spoken loyalty once given. It’s a very Orthean concept: not so much about honour (I don’t think we hear that word once), but about belonging. Ke may not like being Christie’s l’ri-an, but when Christie runs, ke gives acerbically helpful commentary and supports her until the change intervenes. With misgivings and mistrust, perhap; but nonetheless. Although Rodion may have motives beyond household loyalty here – what would the Dadeni do to a Halfgold to get the answers they sought for a beloved t’an‘s death?

This week emphasises how insular the Southland is (don’t trust anyone beyond the telestre; certainly don’t trust Outlanders) and how unrepentantly hateful towards any hint of Witchbreed. Ruric’s golden eyes and Rodion’s pale hair mark them out and subject them to what should be absurd prejudice. You would think the memory-dreams would confirm the Witchbreed are gone; if they are, hating someone on account of coincidental aesthetics feels so irrational… but, I suppose, very universally human.

Last thoughts – for now – are back on gender. While I love that Gentle wrote nonbinary characters, I don’t love that they’re presented as immature by definition. It’s literally a phase an Orthean grows out of (with the change fatal if left too late); and it seems you have no say on the gender you assume. Ugh. As with Christie’s attitude, this feels very dated now and means I won’t be recommending this book to enby and trans friends.

Ouch! Christie has been well and truly framed for the death of Kanta Andrethe. Do you think she was right to run?

…I have very mixed feelings here. On the one hand, running screams guilt. On the other, Christie has been subjected to Wellhouse justice and she has been failed by court justice in pursuing those who wronged her – so I can understand why she wouldn’t hang around to try and clear her name when she’s been caught red-handed over the body of a well-loved local leader.

Christie in Peir-Dadeni is a much warier, less trusting Christie than we saw in Roehmonde. The intriguing thing for me is that here she is nominally surrounded by allies – including Suthafiori – and Hal is on home turf, not exposed as he was in Corbek. Yet her instinct is to run; that they cannot keep her safe from assassins – what guards could she trust at her door in Shiriya-Shenin? – and maybe that politics will trump their friendship or their hopes for an offworld alliance.

That latter point gets no time in the narrative, but I think it’s also fair to assume that Christie doesn’t believe her death – especially her execution for murder – would prevent the Dominion pursuing alliance. After all, they deliberately sent an inexperienced, expendable diplomat…

I think she’s right to feel very, very isolated.

And then the Hexenmeister cometh (it’s all going on, isn’t it!). He claims to be the only person truly able to speak for all of Orthe. Do you agree? What’s your impression of him?

I am fascinated that he’s the Hexenmeister.

So far, the Ortheans have Orthean titles or English ones and then along comes this guy and Christie is translating his title to German? That’s fascinating. Is it a sign she doesn’t really understand his title? Or that it’s so archaic she’s trying to translate it but keep a point of difference (but then why not use Old English?)

Plus it literally means the Witchmaster. He presents as anti-Witchbreed; intimately aware of what they were capable of, but happy to use Witchbreed technology. And yet… the Hexenmeister. Huh. Interesting. I don’t recall that this ever gets addressed; I think I’m just in knots because I happen to speak German!

I instantly mistrust anyone who claims they can speak on behalf of a planet, but in this case… well, he’s the only one with full context. I suppose the question is whether I truly believe he has no political agenda of his own. He wields a lot of indirect influence, and seems genuinely happy with that – but that influence is entirely dependent on geography allowing Kasabaarde to control trade. Offworld trade would not be limited to passage through Kasabaarde (presumably), which would surely reduce the influence of the Brown Tower.

No political agenda? Ha.

And, finally, Christie ‘meets’ the shadowy Emperor-in-Exile. What are your first impressions of this player of the game?

Well isn’t he a nasty piece of work? I’m still a little confused by the ‘absolutely no way the Witchbreed have heirs’ (as confirmed by the Hexenmeister’s memories) and ‘Kel Harantish is full of Witchbreed scions’ – I’m limping along with we know Witchbreed and Orthean had sex; maybe the virus only made full-blood Witchbreed sterile. So yes, the Emperor-in-Exile truly is a distant relative (and so are Ruric and Rodion).

It’s not really important except as one of the few places the world-building gets muddy for me – the only thing that matters is that the Emperor believes it. Unfortunately, his response to that seems to be to be willing to do terrible things in pursuit of power (well that certainly seems Witchbreed enough), with no regard for anyone but himself.

Nasty. Clever. Ambitious. Therefore – I assess – dangerous, as the partial success of his schemes to destabilise the Hundred Thousand shows. Do I think the Hundred Thousand is the ‘better’ culture? Not necessarily; while I respect a culture founded on community and avoiding mass destruction, I have to give some shade to ‘you can’t have anything because it all leads to DEATH’. Dude. Although once you have created sterilisation viruses, maybe you really have shown you can’t be trusted with nice things like medicine.

In unrelated thoughts this week, let’s take a moment for an unexpected enemies-to-allies-to-kinship arc for Christie!Blaize – but also laugh wryly that even Ortheans assume that if you’re that close you must be arykei. NON-ROMANTIC FRIENDSHIP FOLKS, IT’S ALLOWED.

Last thought for the week: this book makes so much more sense to me when I keep front and centre when it was published (1983). There’s a few ideas in play that must have been challenging in 1983 – but from 2020, Christie’s perspective often feels surprisingly conservative. Confused attitudes about gender? Check. Christie being utterly bewildered by the idea of state taking care of your basic needs without demanding labour in return? Check.

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

We’ll back next week to discuss Part Eight!