#SciFiMonth Read-along: Golden Witchbreed – week four

SciFiMonth Read-Along: Golden Witchbreed

Christie S’aranth has survived assassins, dodged accusations of witchcraft and murder, and travelled from the Barrens to the Brown Tower. Now her time on Orthe is ending. Torn between her duty to the Dominion and her love of the Southland, she must decide where her loyalties lie…

It’s the final week of the SciFiMonth read-along of Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle. We’re discussing the drama of the final act, as the telestres gather to elect their T’Ans and Christie’s hidden enemy is finally unmasked.

Christie’s identity feels very fluid as she struggles to separate herself from the Hexenmeister’s memories and re-establish herself with her human colleagues. Do you think she was right to accept the Hexenmeister’s memories? To what extent do you think being an empath has helped vs complicated her experiences on Orthe?

Well, I don’t think she was wrong to accept the Hexenmeister’s memories – understanding is valuable – but I do question whether it was necessary. This brings me straight back to the question of the Hexenmeister’s motivations and here at the end I’ve still got some side-eye for the gentle old man. Did he really need Christie to accept that he was immortal in order for her to accept he is the only person who can speak for Orthe (not that I’m convinced he can speak for Orthe)?

No, I think he needed / wanted Christie’s memories far more than she needed his.

The side effects – confusing as they are – are arguably less of a concern than the implications of that. I don’t judge Christie for her choice: she agonised over it, isolated and hunted. It wasn’t the wrong choice for her personally; but this is the unexpected price – she is further untethered from herself.

Empathy has played a lesser role than I recalled – or expected from the set-up. It seems to have mostly done what it says on the tin (and I don’t know why I expected differently? But I did): to blur Christie’s loyalties by making her identify with her assigned planet, rather than being of particular advantage to the Dominion per se. Given the arrogant arseholery from members of the xenoteam, I guess I see the value of this – someone has to want to take the time to understand the contacted – but it echoes a lot that makes me sad about base human attitudes to the new (sigh).

And it certainly complicates things for Christie.

What do you make of the election and the way the T’an Suthai Telestre is chosen?

Isn’t it fascinating? First you get the telestres to rally behind you – representative democracy in action as the elected S’Ans of the telestres elect a regional T’An (oh look, it’s British party politics) – but then it comes down to… personal conviction? Self-confidence?

It’s mostly terrifying (the second I put this in the context of modern politicians I’m SCREAMING), and the thing that fascinates me the most is that Ruric – highly motivated, surely – and Howice – who hasn’t lacked ambition so far – don’t declare themselves T’An Suthai Telestre. For Ruric in particular, bound more to Tathcaer than Orhlandis, whose vision defaults to considering the good of the Southland over that of her telestre, it feels like the obvious step. Declaring herself would instantly void her conspiracy and let her bar the Offworlders.

And yet she doesn’t. It’s the thing I can’t look away from; I can make a case for Howice having enough on his hands back in Roehmonde and being primarily concerned with the cares of his telestre over the rest of the Southland. But Ruric?

..the closest I get to understanding amari Ruric Orhlandis is through the way her friendships and loyalties conflict with her convictions. She loves Christie. She honestly believes Dalzielle is an excellent T’An Suthai Telestre. She isn’t seeking personal elevation. She’s a warrior first and foremost, not a politician. And maybe – just maybe – she doesn’t believe the Southland would accept a T’An Suthai Telestre who was amari with golden eyes.

Do you consider Ruric a traitor? What do you make of her reasons for her actions? Do you think Earth is as big a threat as she suggests?

I absolutely think Ruric is a traitor and I also think she’s entirely right in her assumptions about Earth. Does that excuse her actions? No, I can’t excuse murder or taking enemy gold – there were other avenues at hand; personal influence to deploy, powerful allies at home – but I can’t condemn her, either. No, my enormous crush on her has nothing to do with it.

Looking back… final comments/thoughts

I’m quite wrung out by Christie’s battle with her identity and loyalties; it rings far too many bells for me (likewise untethered from a sense of nationality or belonging; living in a birth country where I do not feel at home).

I’m not entirely sure – if I’m honest – that the plots works. It’s an extended meander, and if I had the discipline to step back from my affection for it and look at the beats (I don’t), I might take issue with pacing and with convenience. There are aspects that are now dated, but I can’t step back from how well Mary Gentle creates atmosphere and a sense of place, or the feeling I get of stepping into a world populated by people whose lives you are only temporarily interrupting.

Golden Witchbreed is arguably an extended exercise in world-building over everything else. I have found more to question on a reread – my first read I think I was completely swayed by Christie‘s love of the Southland, which I now find as flawed as it is intriguing. I have so many questions left about the Barrens, the deserts, the mysterious shattered continent across the sea – my appetite for knowing more about such a well-realised world is endless! Likewise, I’m left with more questions than answers about the Dominion (but less curiosity).

I’ll close by laughing at myself: I remembered Ruric as a traitor, but didn’t recall the details. Consequently, I reread from the top through the lens of her being insincere in her actions; it makes her an incredibly manipulative figure, given the first assassination attempt happens at her house and the second she’s right on-hand but not sufficiently close by to help, allegedly. Her illness that keeps her far from Corbek when Christie is arrested seems awfully convenient too.

…but all of that is, in fact, coincidence. It’s only after those events that she begins trying to work against the deal. So here’s me reading with my suspicious eyes, enjoying a whole thread of implications that weren’t actually there! It makes for a fascinating personal journey either way, working in parallel to that core refrain of the importance of telestre vs other relationships. Poor, conflicted Ruric. Poor, confused Christie. In the end, on Orthe, neither love nor friendship are ever straightforward.

Talk from other telestres

But wait, this is a read-along – what did everybody else have to say?

Our read-along is over. Like Christie, we must leave Orthe and see what other worlds have in store for us. Perhaps one day some of us will venture back in search of Ancient Light