The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985)
Review by Ian Sales
US author Deborah A Chester began her sf career as Jay D Blakeney, writing four novels between 1985 and 1990, before then adopting the pseudonym Sean Dalton for two sf series, and finally using her own name from 1996 onwards. The four Blakeney novel began with The Children of Anthi, the first of a diptych that was completed in 1990 with Requiem for Anthi. The other two novels are The Omcri Matrix (see here), set in the same universe but is unrelated, and The Goda War (see here), set in an entirely different universe.
The SF Encyclopedia describes the two Anthi novels as arousing “some interest. It is a far-reaching and moderately complex vision of humanity’s future Evolution”. The cover to The Children of Anthi also boasts the puff “In the grand tradition of Dune… an epic of adventure and survival on a dying world”. And it’s true there’s a similar flavour in the Anthi books to Herbert’s magnum opus, although there are no obvious borrowings as there are in Blakeney’s The Omcri Matrix and The Goda War.
Blaise Omari is a crewman aboard a Galactic Space Institute scoutship. Except he’s not – he’s actually an escaped vat-born slave under an assumed identity. And when that identity comes under scrutiny, he hijacks the scoutship and makes a run for the Uncharted Zone. But the first planet he comes across orbits a black hole, and this causes the ship to crash. Only Omari and fellow crewmember Saunders survive. They are captured by masked natives, who seem to have some sort of post-technological semi-feudal militaristic society. Although the races of Ruantl – as Omari learns the planet is called – are humanoid, they are not human: the Bban have:
Hammered plates of thick scarred skin formed the rough planes of that hairless oblong face. The eyes glowed yellow in twin lights of phosphorous above a nose that was but a slit of bone and cartilage. Double-hinged and powerful, the lower jaw was similar in design to an insect’s mandible. (p 29)
The Bban’s rulers, the Tlar, however, are eight feet tall, golden-skinned and attractive. Everyone wears masks – partly as protection against the radiation from the black hole, but also as part of their culture, since only certain sectors of the society can look upon other defined sectors’ naked faces. Omari and Saunders have appeared on Ruantl just as a civil war is about to kick off. The high priest Picyt, who is the Tlar who captures the pair, is about to rebel against the cruel and arrogant Tlar “leiil” (ie, ruler) Hihuan. To do this, he needs an ancient hero, Asan, who has been kept in stasis, with three other ancient heroes, to be awoken. But the awakening process requires a mind as a catalyst, a mind that won’t survive the awakening process. Picyt intends to use Omari, although he does not let on that Omari will die, telling him only that he will be transformed into a Tlar. Even though Omari is on the run, he refuses Picyt’s proposal… At least until he is taken by Hihuan, who leaves him to die in Ruantl’s toxic desert. When he is eventually rescued by Picyt’s forces, Omari reluctantly agrees to be transformed into Asan.
However, the awakening process doesn’t go as planned – Omari survives, and it is Asan’s consciousness that is destroyed. This shouldn’t have happened – since Omari is vat-born he shouldn’t have a soul (a piece of weirdness in the novel which never quite makes sense); so plainly he wasn’t vat-born after all, just enslaved as a baby if he had been. Omari-as-Asan also learns that Anthi, the goddess worshipped by the inhabitants of Ruantl, is actually a sentient computer, responsible for life-support in the Tlar city of Altian and all the Tlar settlements outside the city, and also the care and attention of 800 ancient Tlar held in stasis. The Tlar, it seems, were once the Tlartantla and Ruantl was a colony world. But the Tlartantlan empire fell and now, thousands of years later, the Tlar are all that remain. As Asan, Omari also learns that the four ancient heroes are the only Tlarantlan survivors – the 800 stasis pods are empty. But he does manage to unite the Bban tribes for an attack on Altian to depose leill Hihuan. After several battles, Asan and Hihuan meet in single combat, and Asan kills the leiil.
The plot is a little more complex than the above summary suggests – Picyt’s motives, for example, are far from noble; and Saunders is used as a catalyst to awaken another of the ancient heroes, Aural, Asan’s mate, but Saunders does not survive the process. Saunders only agrees to the “transformation” because Aural is beautiful and she wants to be beautiful – a motivation which very much strikes a wrong note in a character that had up until that point been notable for her competence and the fact the narrative treated her exactly the same as Omari. But all of the women on Ruantl occupy very much traditional roles – they are consorts and wives and mistresses and serving women. Asan even falls in love with a Henan serving woman (a Henan is the product of a Bban parent and a Tlar parent). She is, of course, beautiful.
And yet, for all The Children of Anthi‘s heartland sf gender politics, Blakeney has managed some interesting world-building. The Galactic Space Institute and the polity in which it operates is pretty much a standard space opera setting, but Ruantl itself is quite imaginative. Perhaps it does owe a debt to Dune, with its harsh landscape and the way in which that has shaped the peoples of the planet, with its under-trodden Bban and noble Tlar, who are not only physically beautiful and strong but arrogant as well, and the hero Asan who unites the Bban to fight the Tlar… But there’s more going on in the history of Ruantl than initially meets the eye – and some of it is not even explained until the sequel, Requiem for Anthi – and that lends the book a flavour all its own. Omari is, it must be said, a bit useless as a protagonist, often wrong-footed by his enemies, spending much of his time either imprisoned or injured, often reacting more to events or plans that have misfired than actively driving the plot… The prose is solid, although the construction “was but” appears annoyingly often, and the attempts at archaic phraseology (used to indicate the great age of Tlar’n culture) fall flat more often than not.
Much as I like the two Anthi books, I think the SF Encyclopedia was being generous to them – and their plot summary bears no resemblance to the actual story. The Tlar are not related to humanity, nor are they “guided by the eponymous AI, into a form that is half-flesh and half-electronics”. The Tlar have powers – referred to throughout as “rings” – which give them telepathic and telekinetic powers; and they can “seizert”, or teleport. While mentally linked to Anthi, these powers are much stronger – especially Asan’s, as he is Tlartantlan, not a debased Tlar’n. The Children of Anthi is a fun if undemanding read of no real meaning or importance. It’s a solid example of science fiction’s workmanlike midlist, and no more and no less worth reading than any other such book. If you like this sort of thing, you will like The Children of Anthi. But it comes as no real surprise that the book was never reprinted nor nominated for any awards – something which it has in common with the vast majority of sf novels.