The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

Plot synopses always sound banal, but I’m going to give one anyway because you’ll need it. In 2019 SETI finally comes up trumps. Radio signals carrying strange and beautiful singing are discovered emanating from somewhere in the Alpha Centauri system. No government seems eager to fork out for an expedition, so The Vatican decides to go it alone and send a bunch of Jesuits on the first ever mission to the ETs. When this is discovered, the UN gets its act together and, a few years later, sends a slightly more representative party. The time debt between our system and Alpha Centauri is seventeen years.

Forty-one years later, Father Emilio Sandoz returns to Earth. The report of the UN delegation who sent him back arrived years earlier and is damning. He is the only surviving member of the Jesuit expedition. They found him in a brothel – staff not customer – and witness him kill a native girl who had befriended him. He is very sick, physically mutilated, and deeply mentally disturbed.

The book follows Sandoz’s story in two parallel threads. The first tells the story of the expedition as its members saw it. The second follows the debriefing of Sandoz by his Jesuit superiors. It is very well done. Russell does a fine job of maintaining tension by, on the one hand, introducing you to a likeable bunch of people and, on the other, letting slip that all but one of them will die horribly. And they are the lucky ones.

Other aspects of the book are well done too. The astrophysics seems competent and believable. The linguistics is occasionally fascinating, and the anthropology is excellent, as it should be as Russell has a PhD in the subject. My favourite SF books are always those which create a believable and truly different culture for their aliens. Le Guin does this very well. So does Russell.

I must admit that parts of the plot are very far-fetched. Quite how the Vatican managed to put this secret mission together is never quite thoroughly explained. Nor do I understand why they were willing to send a bunch of rank amateurs who behaved as if they were on a jolly picnic in Darkest Africa. These things, I suspect, must be marked down as “necessary for the message”.

And there are two messages that Russell intends us to take away from the book. Sadly, this is where she falls down.

Message number one is theological. As with Saul Weintraub in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, Sandoz is forced to question the morality of God. But whereas Simmons deals with this fairly well, Russell just ends up making the Catholics look stupid. Given that she had converted from Catholicism to Judaism shortly before writing the book, this is perhaps not surprising.

Message number two is political. Russell has a bee in her bonnet about how nasty historians are these days to poor, misunderstood people like Columbus and the Conquistadors. They were just trying to do the best they could for the native Americans given their cultural background, she says. And in a similar situation, we’d make just as many awful mistakes.

She has a point that we may well stuff up. Certainly an expedition as badly equipped and crewed, and fatally over-enthusiastic, as hers is asking for trouble. They violate the Prime Directive like it is going out of fashion, but then so does Picard when his sense of morality is affronted. What I refuse to accept is that we can’t get it right. Nor do I believe that ancient colonialists should be exonerated of all blame simply because the job was hard. The Persians and Romans made a better job of colonialism that the British and Spanish.

My point, however, is that the book got me thinking about all this stuff. Even if I don’t agree with the conclusions, I like a book that makes me think.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on kwerey.com.

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Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Sheri S Tepper

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Sheri S Tepper (1996)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

North America, 1959, a group of young college girls meet for the first time and become friends. One of their number, Sophy, is stunningly beautiful and scared stiff of boys. In order to protect her from the endless stream of suitors, her friends give her a make-over so that she looks dowdy. Along with the poorly fitting clothes and glasses, they advise her to carry a large, heavy book everywhere so as to look studious. The book in question is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. It becomes a symbol for the group, and they form a club, the Decline and Fall Club, in which they swear to each other to stand on their own two feet as women and not Decline or Fall from that noble position.

As many of you will know, Sherri Tepper is one of my favourite authors. Her early fantasy stuff is, I’m told, not very good. I haven’t gone back to check this. I was introduced to her work with Grass, which was a Hugo nominee. Since then she has produced a series of fine novels that combine SF and fantasy themes and most of which have a sharp feminist edge to them. Of particular note are The Gate to Women’s Country, which is a thoughtful, and sometimes hilarious, look at a feminist utopia, and Beauty, a startling re-interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty story which lives up to its name. Tepper has her faults, and we’ll come back to a few of them later, but I always look forward to a new novel from her with considerable eagerness.

Forty-one years later, the girls are grown older, wiser and, inevitably, sadder, but they still try to adhere to their vow. Once a year they meet up at the home of one member and assure their friends that they have not Declined nor Fallen in the intervening months. And for most of them that is mostly true.

Carolyn is married and has an adult daughter. When her husband retired from the FBI she gave up her legal career and moved to the country with him. Ophelia is married too, to a famous journalist who is never home, but she is still working: a doctor in the Manhattan South Receiving Infirmary (Misery to its staff). Bettiann’s husband is in advertising. She does not work, having swapped the endless round of beauty pageants her mother had forced her through for the equally artificial life of a society hostess. She is still bulimic. Jessamine keeps company with the chimps and monkeys who are her research subjects as she struggles to unravel the mysteries of genomes. The primates make better company than her drunken, philandering husband. Agnes, married to God, is now head of her abbey, which also happens to run one of the best oyster farms in an America whose coastal waters can no longer support fish. Faye, still a militant lesbian, is now an internationally respected sculptress.

And Sophy? Frightened, uncomprehending Sophy? Thoughtful, questioning Sophy? Sophy, who travelled the world recording stories of man’s inhumanity to woman? Sophy who spent all the money she got from her books establishing shelters for battered wives? Sophy lost hope. There was a bridge, a fast flowing river, an abandoned car. Sophy, it would appear, had Declined and Fallen, terminally.

Much of Tepper’s Science Fiction is written in answer to the question `How might Society be changed?’.

That was Anne Wilson, from a long and perceptive article on Tepper in Attitude #8. It is spot on, as is Anne’s contention that Tepper’s answers to this question are frequently unacceptable. She has tried covert social engineering, submission to a parasitic mind-controlling fungus, wiping out most of the population and, in her previous novel, Shadow’s End, God turning up in person to flush His failed experiment down the plug hole of the universe. The majority of this has been done in a science fantasy setting.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall is different. Whereas before Tepper has always used an invented setting to detail the villainy of her enemies (primarily males and patriarchal religions), the new book is set fair and square in our world. The onset of the Millenium is used as the pretext for postulating a resurgence of the type of ideas she despises, but she has needed no artifice to find examples of evil with which to terrify us. Any reader of the excellent Marie Claire could have done the same thing: brides burned for their dowries in India, girls “circumcised” in the Sudan, girl babies exposed in China so that their parents can try again to make their single allowed child a boy, raped women jailed in Pakistan for their “immorality”, doctors at abortion clinics murdered by religious mobs, and unmarried mothers deprived of welfare in the supposedly enlightened west to discourage them from breeding again. In many ways the real world is more horrible than anything a fantasy author can imagine.

But, as usual, Tepper has no easy solution, no evolutionary path to a better society. Is she really as despairing as she makes out? Does she really want some avenging angel to come down from Heaven and cleanse the world of its wickedness? I can’t tell, but I would love to get to talk to her and ask.

Shortly before the annual DFC meeting, Carolyn is asked to take on a new case. An uneducated girl, without even the sense to know she was pregnant, gave birth to her rape-engendered child in a quiet alley and disposed of the unpleasant, bloody lump in a nearby skip. The local District Attorney, a known misogynist, has taken on the prosecution as part of a moral crusade aimed at boosting his chances of being elected Governor. Carolyn calls on her friends for help. But there is much more to the case than meets the eye. Her opponent is but a tool for the vast and shadowy American Alliance which masterminds right wing groups around the world. How can six old women living on past idealism hope to challenge an international conspiracy?

Perhaps Sophy would have known, but she is dead, isn’t she? The women are not so sure. They have been having visions, and the body was never found. Perhaps they should check up on their old friend, but how? She came, she said, from an obscure Amerindian tribe in New Mexico. But how much did they really know about her? Who was she?

Needless to say, it is Tepper, the writing is wonderful, the emotion it generates is intense. I loved it. But ever since my long and fascinating discussion with David Brin about Glory Season I have had new criteria by which to judge feminist SF. Once again, Tepper fails on both counts.

On fairness, yes she does have some good men: Carolyn’s husband and friends are solid, reliable and caring. But there are no bad women. Sure some of them are taken in by the lies men have fed them and slot apparently happily into their controlled lives, some of them are just too poor, stupid and desperate to know better, but none of them are ever motivated by greed to share in the oppression. Tepper, it would seem, has never heard of Margaret Thatcher. And, as I have already said, she once again falls back on the unacceptable solution.

Maybe I am an idealist, maybe I am just young and foolish, but I don’t want to give up looking for a solution that does not involve mass disease, death and destruction. And I don’t believe that any answer we come up with in that way can be any better than what we have now. Unacceptable solutions lead to unacceptable results. I will keep reading Sherri Tepper’s books in the hope that she manages to find an answer that is less apocalyptic, and I will continue to enjoy her fine writing. But I think I will continue to be sad and disappointed by her endings.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

The Two of Them, Joanna Russ

The Two of Them, Joanna Russ (1978)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

Some books get to stay in print because they are huge commercial successes. Others because they won awards. But some books ought to say in print simply because of the light they throw on the history of science fiction. That, I suspect, is an important role of the academic press. And if is probably why Wesleyan University Press is re-issuing novels by Joanna Russ.

Why is it so important that Russ stays in print? Because she is a pivotal figure in the development of feminist science fiction, and indeed of feminism. We can learn a lot about history simply by reading Russ.

The interesting question, however, is whether what she wrote is still relevant today. Are her novels simply a product of the 1970s sex war, or do they have something to say to young women today? Bearing in mind, of course, that many young women today claim that feminism has outlived its usefulness.

The Two of Them is very much about the position of women in society. The two characters of the title are Irene Waskiewicz and Ernst Neumann. She is a rebellious tomboy teenager living in 1950s America who decides to run away from home with her family’s mysterious and handsome friend. He turns out to be an agent of the Trans-Temporal Authority, and he offers he a job in the agency.

Ernst’s surname is almost certainly deliberate. He is a “new man”, someone sympathetic to the female cause. And the point of the story, I suspect, is to show that even he has limits.

The bulk of the book is taken up by an operation that takes Irene and Ernst to Ka’abah, a fundamentalist Muslim community. I suspect Russ would have got into a lot of trouble had she written the book today. Ka’abah is an obvious caricature, emphasizing all of the patriarchal aspects of Islam at the expense of anything else. It is the sort of society that Sheri Tepper would create as a source of bad guys. Russ does occasionally point out that it is something of a mockery of true Islam, but I still think the book would cause a big fuss if it were published new now.

That aside, we are in familiar Tepper territory. The men of Ka’abah treat their women abominably, and essentially keep them as pets. Many of the women go along with this because a) they have been brainwashed from birth to believe that this is the way society is supposed to be, and b) because apart from getting slapped around a lot they think that having nothing to do all day except beautify themselves, shop, and watch soap operas is a pretty cushy number. Irene finds a little girl who wants to be a poet, and determines to rescue her.

So far the book is very much over the top. The men of Ka’abah are cartoon villains. But they are not the point of the story. Certainly the complicity of the Ka’abah women in their own suppression is important. But the real meat of the story comes when Irene analyses Ernst’s reaction to the whole affair. Because, the book seems to suggest, when it comes down to it, all men are the same.

So yes, Ernst might be a Neumann. But while he might support Irene’s right to have a job and to not marry and not have kids, his basic attitude to her can be summed up as, “I’m happy to support you, but you have to understand that women are fundamentally irrational and intellectually inferior, so they can’t be let loose on their own.” Of course he never comes out and says that. The genius of the book is that Russ makes Ernst’s attitude clear while doing nothing more than describe ordinary man-woman interaction. Many women readers will recognize aspects of their male partners in Ernst.

So what is Irene to do about Ernst? She kills him.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

Jerusalem Fire, RM Meluch

Jerusalem Fire, RM Meluch (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

With a title like Jerusalem Fire, and a blurb that begins “To most of the galaxy he was a legend without a face…” goes on to mention “Iry, the world of the Irin warrior-priests” and finishes “it needed only his presence to cause a jihad to boil out across the universe”, a reader might be forgiven for supposing Meluch had written a Jewish version of Dune. In fact, the back-cover blurb manages to completely misrepresent the story of Jerusalem Fire. Yes, there is some romanticisation of Jewish history – specifically Masada – much as Frank Herbert romanticised the Bedouin lifestyle. But the differences between Meluch’s novel and Dune are greater than than their similarities.

The “legend without a face” is Alihahd – which means “he left” in the language of one planet – who is a rebel runner in the Na’id Empire. After two millennia of dark age – a standard space opera trope – the Na’id conquered the galaxy under the aegis of “Galactic Dominion/Human Supremacy”. While their motives were initially pure, their unwillingness to brook any dissent has resulted in a near-totalitarian state. Their campaign of conquest ended some thirteen years earlier with the taking of Jerusalem, symbolic of the whole Earth, in a bloody battle.

Jersualem Fire opens with Alihahd’s ship being chased by a Na’id squadron. The refugees he’s carrying manage to escape in the lifeboats, but his ship is destroyed shortly afterwards. Alihahd and three other crew-members survive. They are rescued by a mysterious ship, which is also damaged. The ship crashes on a planet both recognise as the semi-mythical world of Iry. Only Alihahd, a young crewman called Vaslav, and Harrison White Fox Hall, captain of the mysterious ship, survive the crash.

They are taken in by Iry’s resident aliens. These come in two forms: the short, jolly, gnome-like ranga, and the tall, lithe aghara warrior-priests. The latter live in the Aerie, a village high up in the mountains, either side of a mile-deep chasm. The two halves of the village are joined by a single rope-bridge.

The aghara are indeed the warrior-priests of legend, though almost nothing about the “priest” aspect is described in the book. They are superlative sword-fighters, excellent marksmen, and possess psychic powers. Though they occasionally leave their planet, they have remained aloof from human affairs. Even the presence of a handful of humans on Iry – there are others beside Alihahd, Vaslav and Hall – is accepted begrudgingly. One of these humans is Jinnin-ben-Taire, who came to Iry as a child stowaway and, against all odds, trained to become a warrior-priest. He hates Alihahd the moment he lays eyes on him.

Meanwhile, Alihahd undergoes alcohol withdrawal, tries to work out if Hall is actually the captain of the Marauder, a mysterious pirate ship which uses a vast hologram of the Flying Dutchman as a disguise, and tries to find a way off-world. During this period, Alihahd’s disguise, which had darkened his skin, hair and eyes, works its way out of his system and reveals his true colouring: white, with blond hair and blue eyes. The Na’id operate a policy of miscegenation, and throwbacks to pure races such as Alihahd are hated and feared. One famous such person was the “White Na’id”, Shad Iliya, the general who took Jerusalem in a week, after a century-long siege by other generals.

It doesn’t take much insight on the part of the reader to realise Alihahd was Shad Iliya, and that he became an enemy of the Na’id Empire as a direct result of the battle of Jerusalem. The story leads up to an extended flashback describing the exact events and their effect on Shad Iliya. This section of the story is also what gives the book its title.

Then there’s Jinnin-ben-Taire, who scares the Itiri with his single-mindedness. He is banished after losing a fight for leadership against the Fendi, Roniva, and goes on a rampage across Na’id territory, which in turn explains his own origin.

Events come to a head when the Na’id land on Iry, and attempt to capture Alihahd, who by this point has dropped his disguise. At no point, do the Itiri (not “Irin”) ” boil out across the universe”.

Jerusalem Fire is a space opera that takes place almost exclusively on a single alien world. Only in that respect is it similar to Dune. On rereading it for this review, I found myself wondering why I had rated it so highly on previous reads. But somewhere around the middle, the story started to gel and I finished it liking it much more than I’d expected to. There are, however, some problematical areas. The Itiri, for example, speak an archaic form of Universal, the galactic language, and this is rendered as cod Elizabethan English. Such speech patterns don’t work in fantasy novels, and in a space opera they’re even less successful. Also, in the Na’id Empire humans who share Alihahd’s colouring are derogatively called “nazis”. There is far too much baggage attached to that term for it to be used in such a way – especially given the role the Jews play in the section set during the battle of Jerusalem. There is also a nasty streak of speciesism running throughout the novel. The Na’id are serious about their “Human Supremacy” – Shad Iliya spent much of his early military career butchering aliens. He hates aliens still – which does affect his dealings with the Itiri (and especially with some of their guests).

Jerusalem Fire is not a great sf novel, but it’s a better one then I had thought it would be. The central quartet of Alihahd, Hall, Roniva, and Jinnin-ben-Taire are perhaps a little one-note, and the setting is somewhat uncomfortable in places, but it’s a well-plotted and very readable novel. The trio depicted on the cover art, incidentally, bear no resemblance to the actual characters in the book.

The Color of Distance, Amy Thomson

The Color of Distance, Amy Thomson (1995)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

The Color of Distance is about an Earth biologist on a survey mission who crash lands in the jungle of an alien world. By the time Juna is able to get to a working radio her colleagues have given her up for dead and are on the way to the jump point. They don’t have the fuel to return immediately, but promise to come back in a few years time. Juna is left to survive by herself, and it isn’t going to be easy.

To start with, humans are severely allergic to just about everything on the alien world. Without her environment suit, Juna will go into anaphylactic shock very quickly. Fortunately, Juna has discovered an intelligent life form. They might be able to help her survive, if she can just learn to communicate with them.

The Tendu look a bit like large tree frogs. As with many Earth frogs, they can change their skin colour. What started as camouflage and simple colour signals has evolved into a sophisticated symbolic language, presumably along the lines of Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphs. Tendu don’t have the vocal apparatus to talk, and Juna can’t change her skin colour. So much for the Star Trek universal communicator.

Once communication is underway there is Tendu society to cope with. Like human forest dwellers, the Tendu live in harmony with their surroundings, taking just enough from the forest to survive and ensuring that it will continue into the future. That makes them very keen on population control which, if you are a frog and lay 100 eggs each time you get pregnant, is an interesting problem.

By now you should be starting to see that Amy is not just writing about aliens. In the very best traditions of SF she is helping us look at human problems by creating an alien society that throws a completely different light on the issue. The environment and population control are issues that tend to bring out the worst in human thought processes. We need books like this that help us look at the big questions in a new light.

The other thing that a good first contact novel must do is present an alien society that is both different and believable. Once again, Amy is right on the button. As far as classical technology goes, the Tendu are nowhere. There’s no use for a wheel in a rain forest. They have managed to invent the spade, the blowpipe and the fishing net, and that is about it. Biotechnology, however, is another matter entirely. The Tendu have venom spurs on their wrists which were presumably originally used to stun or kill prey, but are now capable of delivering any chemical the Tendu bodies are capable of synthesising. Their medical skills are light years ahead of humanity. To them, any creature that can’t cure a cold when it gets one is a hopeless primitive.

As you might guess, Juna survives her exile, and the final section of the book is devoted to the return of the human survey ship. It has taken Juna four years to understand the Tendu. Now she has just a few days to help her fellow humans do the same. And given humanity’s track record with foreign cultures, doing so might just be condemning her froggy friends to slavery or extinction.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

The Omcri Matrix, Jay D Blakeney

The Omcri Matrix, Jay D Blakeney (1987)
Review by Ian Sales

Costa is a lieutenant in Playworld’s Planetary Patrol, and its “smartest, toughest and most ambitious officer”, as the blurb has it. She is also an adapt, a which means she has been genetically engineered to possess improved hearing, eyesight, sense of smell, endurance and strength. Her dream is to join the Rangers, the elite combat force operated by the galaxy’s Fleet. But the Playworld Directory won’t release her from her contract.

Understandably upset at being forced to remain on Playworld – its name indicates its role in galactic affairs – Costa decides to dial back her commitment to her job. She has been assigned as leader of protection detail for a visiting dignitary, the Kublai of the United Worlds of Drugh, who is visiting the ruined Kanta temple complex on the northern continent for religious reasons. Before the Kublai’s arrival, Costa visits the Beros bazaar, and is accosted by an Omcri. These are formless creatures of darkness in hooded cloaks, feared and hated by all, who can be hired as couriers and assassins. Their origin is a mystery. The Omcri tries to bribe Costa into betraying the Kublai, but she refuses. So it “poisons” her. Unfortunately, she has no opportunity to inform her commander before the Kublai arrives and the extended party heads out to the temple complex in the jungle.

Where it is ambushed a few days later. The Kublai is abducted by persons unknown. Of the rest of the party, only Costa survives. As does the injured Ranger, secretly held in a stasis box, which the Kublai had intended to sacrifice to his god, Kanta. When Costa contacts her commander, she is immediately accused of betraying the Kublai and branded a traitor. She and the Ranger must cross the jungle to the coast, and on an island there find some way for the Ranger to contact his corps.

It turns out the Omcri are more than they appear. They are advance scouts for an evil civilisation from another galaxy – or dimension; The Omcri Matrix is not entirely clear on this point – which intends to take over Costa’s galaxy. And Costa, it seems, is the only person ever to overcome the Omcri “poison” – actually a means of taking control of the person so poisoned. And so she must battle the creatures who control the Omcri and save herself, the Ranger, her colleagues, Playworld, and the galaxy. There is, incidentally, no matrix in the Omcri’s galaxy/dimension.

There is little in The Omcri Matrix which is especially original. Throughout there are small hints that Dune provided much inspiration, though the story itself bears little or no resemblance to Frank Herbert’s novel. Costa, for example, was born among a desert people, whose culture hints at Arabic culture. Their houses are called sieghr (cf the Fremen sietch), they are polygamous, and their sense of hospitality and honour resembles that of romanticised Bedouins. Which is strange, because though Playworld’s only city, Beros, seems like some North African city, much of the planet is jungle and there are extensive oceans.

The story is structured around two conspiracies – one constrained to Playworld, and one pan-galactic. The villain of the first piece, who rejoices in the name of Wob Nogales, is an obese hedonist – shades of Baron Harkonnen? The creature which controls the Omcri, however, is far from human. As one conspiracy is resolved, so its solution catapults Costa and her Ranger friend, Haufren, into the next.

The prose is transparent – ie, readable, but adds nothing to the reading experience. There are a lot of made-up alien words, mostly referring to Playworld’s flora and fauna, and not all of which are pronounceable – eg, juujb. Flin is used throughout as a swearword, though some of the other oaths probably should have been reconsidered: “I don’t want a crew of shin-nicked Fleeters in here on my planet any more than you do.” (So in this intergalactic future, cutting a notch in a person’s lower-leg is considered an insult?) There doesn’t appear to be much logic in the use of neologisms – for example:

Yulies was their word for the rich people who flocked to Playworld for a few weeks of idleness. (p 9)

This is the only time the term yulies is used in the story… which does make you wonder why Blakeney bothered to include it. To paraphrase Chekov, if there’s a smeerp in the first act, it needs to have some narrative impact by the third act.

Costa’s commander and colleagues are a little too quick to consider her a traitor, and their refusal to allow her an explanation smacks of idiot plotting. The universe beyond Playworld is only hinted at – in fact, it’s not even clear whose Fleet the Rangers belong to; and mentions of a Galactic Space Institute are never explained. Playworld itself seems little more than a room full of used furniture. The Omcri, for example, reminded me of Grannis from van Vogt’s The Universe Maker; and also the cover art to Philip Jose Farmer’s The Unreasoning Mask.

Put simply, The Omcri Matrix is sf brain-candy. It’s a fun read for a wet afternoon and nothing else.

The Family Tree, Sheri S Tepper

The Family Tree, Sheri S Tepper (1997)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

The Family Tree opens with Dora Henry, a detective sergeant with the local police, coming close to having a nervous breakdown at her front gate. The source of her distress is a weed disfiguring the neatly paved path. Not that Dora cares, but her husband, Jared, will be furious. Jared is tidy and organised; obsessively so. Provided that everything in his life is in its place and in order he is happy. Should anything be usual, such as Dora failing to serve dinner at precisely the right time and providing exactly the right meal cooked exactly as Jared’s mother would have cooked it, he gets very angry. So far, a typical Tepper.

But wait, the second chapter takes place in a harem in a fantasy world which, we later discover, exists 3000 years into the future. It tells how Opalears, an orphaned servant girl, is selected to accompany Sultan Tummyfat’s favourite son, Sahir, on a journey to the far off monastery of St. Wheel, ostensibly in search of a cure for the Prince’s mysterious illness. What is going on here?

Two things seem obvious immediately. First, this is one of Tepper’s little side projects. It has the same, light, humourous touch as Beauty, and that may just mean that it is not quite as depressing as usual. It also seems certain that the two storylines, which alternate chapters for much of the first half of the book, will eventually merge. And so they do, at which point…

Were I an American I would say that Tepper throws a curve ball. But Americans, being innocent of cricket, know little of the magic that can be achieved with a raised seam, a part-polished surface and the option to let the ball bounce. Most of them have never even heard of Shane Warne. What Tepper does is the literary equivalent of the Shane Warne Mystery Ball. Having seen it, you are consumed with the need to go back and watch the replay again and again to try to figure out how she did it and why you never saw it coming. But you know that no amount of study would save you if another one came your way. It is just too well disguised.

There’s not a lot more I can say about the plot because to do so would completely spoil the surprise for you. I can, however, address the usual questions one would ask about a Tepper novel.

First the good news. This is the first of Tepper’s novel for ages which treats the sexes fairly. There are male characters who are perfectly normal, even nice. Abby McCord, the biologist, and Prince Izakar, the young sorcerer that Opalears and Shair meet on their travels, are positively charming at times. Even the awful Jared turns out to have an excuse of some sort for his behaviour. Equally importantly, there are stupid and bad women. Dora’s mother spent her life rushing from one pregnancy to another, partly on the grounds that being pregnant excused her from having to look after the children she already had. The police lieutenant says his wife won’t feel safe from animals until the whole world is paved over. Jared’s mother is clearly the source of much of his obsessive tidiness. It is, at last, a book full of real people rather than sex war stereotypes.

The bad news is that the Great Disaster is still with us. Jared’s weed shows no sign of wanting to be killed, and is soon taking over America. Izakar’s history tells him that his pseudo-mediaeval society came into being after a great plague destroyed most of mankind. I think I have run out of excuses. Tepper really does believe that most of us deserve to be sentenced to death for crimes against the planet.

The ending of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall worried me. In it, Carolyn was given the opportunity to make a fundamental change to the nature of the world, something that would affect every single human on the planet. She appeared to make her choice with very little thought of the morality of what she was doing. In Plague of Angels we saw only the aftermath of such a decision, and in Shadow’s End it was God who decided so the moral question was moot. It is about time that Tepper faced up to the consequences of her politics. In The Family Tree, at last, she makes a start.

I think one of the reasons I enjoy Tepper’s book so much is the consistency of theme and the constantly developing moral theories. This one, however, has a lot more to recommend it. It is light-hearted, amusing and lacking in much of the obvious nastiness of her other work. Only in the tail is the sting discovered. Highly recommended, especially to those of you with an interest in animal rights.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.