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Mary Gentle, Golden Witchbreed

GentleGoldenI was pretty disappointed with this book, although at the same time there was enough of interest going on that I'll read the follow-up, Ancient Light. In a recent conversation voidampersand described this 1983 novel as a science fiction story that reads like a fantasy, and he's right about that. Specifically, it reads like a fantasy novel about court intrigue in a vaguely Medieval culture, and boy did I find the Machiavellian stuff boring. And it goes on for over 400 pages! It certainly didn't help that I figured out who the secret Machiavellian mastermind was far in advance of the big reveal.

Now, what kept me slogging through the novel despite the fact that I found much of it unengaging was the science fiction lurking beneath the surface. (I should note here that I like fantasies just fine, but I'm not big on the pseudo-Medieval tradition.) While the story felt flabby at this length, it is essentially a long tour of an alien planet, and the travelogue allows for some slow-paced world-building that's very well done. We gradually come to learn that this isn't in fact a primitive culture but a post-apocalyptic culture, and the moment, well over halfway through the book, in which the narrator arrives at a city in which some of the old super-scientific technology is still in use does a nice job of reconfiguring much of what we've seen before.

The debt that Golden Witchbreed owes to Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is very obvious. It's about an envoy from Earth, Lynne de Lisle Christie, who has come to the recently discovered planet, Carrick V (a.k.a. Orthe), to determine what sort of diplomatic relationship should be established with the natives. The Ortheans, like the Gethenians in Le Guin's novel, are androgynous, although the Ortheans permanently become one gender or the other at the time of puberty. Gender equality is a given. The Ortheans, like the Gethenians, are ambivalent about contact with the aliens, and some factions are ferociously against it. Christie, like Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness, suffers imprisonment and attempts on her life in the course of her trek across the planet. Gentle's novel suffers in comparison with Le Guin's classic, but then again most books do. Gentle is perhaps better at showing us the alien, but maybe it's just that the alien is more overt on this planet. Again, the political intrigue in Gentle's book just wasn't very interesting to me, whereas Le Guin achieves real complexity on the political front.

A number of reviewers have called this book a planetary romance, which was something that never occurred to me but seems perfectly valid. I think of planetary romances as stories in the mold of Edgar Rice Burroughs -- old-fashioned adventure stories set on alien planets, and while Golden Witchbreed doesn't feel like an old school swashbuckling adventure story, it shares a perhaps surprising number of elements with Burroughs' books: swords and super-science, monarchies, intrigue, imprisonment, telepathy (called empathy in Gentle's book), barbarians living in the ruins of dead civilizations, and so on. Christie is a much more passive protagonist than anything in Burroughs or even Brackett, but that just means she's more an observer than instigator of the adventures, which seems fitting for a planetary romance in the anthropological mode.

Then again, maybe that's another reason the story feels less engaging to me. Christie is changed by her experiences, she's gone a bit native, but it seems somewhat rote. Where's the skin in the game? There needed to be more at stake for her, or there needed to be more made of her ambivalent loyalties and identity. There needed to be more made of her new memories of the distant past.

On a completely tangential point, I also thought this was one of the weakest covers by Michael Whelan that I have ever seen. And I love Whelan's work.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 30th, 2012 10:57 pm (UTC)
I wondered if part of it was a new writer who hadn't quite gotten everything under control yet. You've made me feel better about the prospect of reading the even longer sequel. (I'm not a big fan of long novels, partly because I'm a relatively slow reader.)
Oct. 31st, 2012 06:52 am (UTC)
I like the identification of Golden Witchbreed as a planetary romance. And yeah, there are a lot of flaws. I think Gentle figured it out when working on the sequel, which was supposed to be The Twilight Shore. We got Ancient Light instead.
Oct. 31st, 2012 02:10 pm (UTC)
I started reading Ancient Light last night and am already finding it a livelier piece of writing.
Oct. 31st, 2012 02:08 pm (UTC)
Interesting. This is one of those books that I've been sort of peripherally aware of since I was a kid, but I've never read it or even really heard it talked about.

That "resembles fantasy but it's 'really' science fiction" thing was pretty common at one time. Maybe it still is? Anyway, you could describe several of the Darkover and Dragonflight books that way, as well as the Coldfire series and probably others I'm not thinking of.
Oct. 31st, 2012 02:19 pm (UTC)
Those are good points of comparison, and in fact both Bradley and McCaffery are quoted in the promotional copy for the book. (I don't think I know of the Coldfire series.)

I've always been curious about Gentle. She also writes about Renaissance magic and so might make an odd companion to John Crowley.
Oct. 31st, 2012 04:59 pm (UTC)
Coldfire includes Black Sun Rising and When True Night Falls -- the latter has a gorgeous Michael Whelan cover painting which I couldn't stop staring at when I saw the original during one Worldcon. So I kinda wanted to read that one, but I ended up reading the final one in the series (Crown of Shadows) thanks to (I think) the Foolscap free book box.

You get really deep into the climax before you discover the sorta-semi-SFinal justification for the world's magic, though, so it feels even less SF than the others I mentioned.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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