[identity profile] littlerdog.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] thelittledog
The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein.

Steerswoman cover

The Steerswoman plays with the reader's expectations, teasing them as to whether this story is "really" SF or if it's Fantasy. There's magic--or is there? Perhaps it's fakery. Or electricity. The reader must make up their own mind.

Steerswomen like Rowan (and a few men) are the keepers and disseminators of knowledge. They must answer any question they are asked or cease to follow their calling. In return, anyone who fails to answer their questions is blacklisted, unable ever to question a steerswoman again.

Rowan is intrigued by some gems or jewels that have turned up in various places, as if thrown across the land by a giant's hand. There's no obvious way they could have been made, or inserted themselves into trees. At the same time, they don't seem to have any particular value. Yet someone is determined to put an end to her investigation. For protection, Rowan links up with Outskirter Bel, and, despite the differences between them, they gradually become friends.

But as Rowan persists in investigating, the two friends are drawn further into danger.

I enjoyed this book. It sets up a believable and well-drawn society, and Rowan and Bel have strength, intelligence and endurance without being set up as superheroes. Their determination reminds me of Snake in Dreamsnake. My only difficulty was that Rowan's intellectual leap regarding the nature of the jewels struck me as coming out of the blue. I didn't feel enough groundwork had been laid for it to convince. A small blemish on an otherwise well-constructed book.

Where the narrative is strongest is in the interactions between Rowan and Bel. Both stick to their own principles while slowly coming to appreciate the other's point of view. As their friendship strengthens, so their characters gain depth. The young man whose help they obtain later in the story, William, is perhaps not quite so well characterised; in fact he's a bit annoying. Or maybe he's annoying because the author wants us to know, hey, this guy's annoying. But he means well.

Polar City Blues by Katharine Kerr.

Polar City Blues cover

Set on the planet Hagar, where life is mostly conducted after dark, due to the sun's intensity, Polar City Blues is a curious mixture of a detective story with a First Contact tale. It has an impressively diverse cast, including a furry and naturally mute telepath, and white people who are considered inferior to the dominant blacks.

Hagar, a Republic planet, is caught between the rival powers of the Confederation and the Alliance. When an alien carli from the Confederation Embassy is found murdered, Chief Bates must investigate while walking a tightrope of diplomacy. And when telepath Mulligan is swatted by an unknown power, and an unknown assassin targets any witnesses to the carli's assassination, ex-Naval officer Lacey must put her life on the line to identify the assassin.

Add to this a crashed pod, another murdered alien, his distraught soulmate and a spreading alien bacterium that makes people smell of vinegar (and itch. And ITCH.).

Despite the SFnal trappings, there's much here that's tediously familiar. Drugs and drug dealing. Prostitution. Crime bosses. Spies. Hate mobs. Some part of me wants something different from human life on a different world. A way of living that, if not better, is at least other. Yet even the presence of effective telepaths doesn't seem to affect the way people behave.

Then we have Buddy, the AI who's in love with Lacey, and also incredibly cutesy and annoying. At some point in his narrative arc, I wanted to put the book down and walk away. It is possible to go too far in AI/human love rivalry, I fear.

The book is readable, if a bit slow-paced, and there's plenty of intrigue for those who can wrap their heads around such machinations.

Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre.

Dreamsnake cover

Dreamsnake is unusual among post-apocalyptic science fiction in that new ways of living have been built, some of them technological, others closer to the land, and there's very little harking back to the past. The 'ancients' are mentioned and some of their buildings and their mistakes survive, but for the most part Dreamsnake's characters live in the present. As do we.

Snake is a healer who uses three snakes to diagnose and cure illness and disease. One is Grass, a dreamsnake, a species that originates with offworlders who are mentioned but never appear. Dreamsnakes are incredibly rare and the healers have had very little luck in trying to breed them. Yet at the same time they are essential to the healer's work--they bring comfort and ease to the dying.

When she is treating a boy called Stavin for a tumour, Snake misjudges the fear and hatred of his clan for snakes, resulting in Grass's death. Desolate and blaming herself, Snake resolves to return to the healers' hall where she was trained. But on the way she finds more people to help, and learns of a possible source of dreamsnakes. If she can bring dreamsnakes to her fellow healers, then maybe the loss of Grass will be forgiven.

The writing is spare and overall doesn't try to evoke emotion in the reader, which perhaps makes for a little distancing. But Snake is an interesting and compassionate character, who is also brave when trying to do the right thing. On her journey she introduces us to the different ways of living that have developed in the aftermath of what seems to have been a nuclear war. Tribespeople, desert people, horse breeders, recyclers, the closed and enigmatic city, all are glimpsed through Snake's eyes and so imperfectly understood.

The snake medicine is fascinating, being a mixture of breeding, training, and genetic manipulation. Snake can let the snakes free to hunt, drink or explore, knowing they will return to her when she taps the ground. But although she's immune to their venom, she's not impervious to being bitten. It's these small details that make the snakes realistic.

Overall, an intriguing and enjoyable read.
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