Godsfire, Cynthia Felice (1978)
Review by Ian Sales
It’s not all that often the cover art on a science fiction novel gives a good indication of what’s inside, but Godsfire‘s actually does a halfway decent job of setting out precisely what the reader can expect to find. To wit, a race of cat-people (who are not always naked, but never mind). And humans. But in Godsfire, the word “human” refers to the cat people, and homo sapiens are actually their slaves – in fact, a discussion of the “humanity” of the slaves is one of several themes driving the novel’s plot.
Heao is an academic, or rather, a member of Academe, a sort of philosophical and scientific thinktank which advises the ruling prince of the city, as well researching things simply for knowledge’s sake. She is also a gifted cartographer, so much so her nickname is “Pathfinder”. The highland town where she lives was recently conquered by a lowland “King-conqueror”, and now life is slowly returning to normal. Heao meets the enterprising merchant lowland Baltsar, and through him learns more about his slaves – which are rare in the highlands. She accompanies Baltsar to meet the King-conqueror, drawing a new map of the landscape as they travel from highlands through badlands to the lowlands, and even finds a quicker route. It transpires that Heao, the King-conqueror and the head of their religion, Tarana, have all had dreams which affect the destiny of the race and somewhow involve “godsfire”. And such dreams are taken very seriously…
Godsfire is essentially a sustained piece of world-building, but it’s a bravura piece. Felice handles her cat people with a remarkable degree of invention, and their physiology and society reads as surprisingly convincing. It’s the small details – their diet, their lack of distance vision, the way they use their tails to signal mood or add colour to their speech. It’s only halfway through the book, for example, during a conversation between Heao and her slave Teon that it becomes clear the characters are colour-blind. The physical details of Heao’s world are also cleverly constructed – the book’s blurb calls it the “shadowlands”, which refers to the land beneath the “skybridge”. Heao’s people believe this is used by the gods, one of which carries godsfire, the great heat that provides sufficient light to live beneath in the shadow beneath the skybridge. The land is limited by the Evernight Mountains to the north, the sea to the south, and there are apparently other peope lto east and west which prevent expansion up and down the coast. It’s not exactly hard to figure out the actual set-up, but Felice does an excellent job of remaining within the viewpoint of her creations.
The first half of the novel introduces the main cast and their world. It then leaps forward nineteen years. Heao is mated to Batlsar, and they have a daughter. She also believes the slaves (ie, homo sapiens) are as fully human as her people, which means by law they should not be enslaved. But to free them would destroy the economy, not to mention upset religious dogma. As a result Heao is shunned by the guardians of the temple, which means she is ostracised by the entire town. Eventually, she is forced to recant, after her mentor is poisoned. This leaves her free to lead an expedition through the Evernight Mountains, because she’s the only person who could so so. On the other side of the mountains, out from under the skybridge, she learns the truth about godsfire, and about the slaves.
Science fiction novels which tell their stories from the viewpoint of an alien are not unusual. Such novels in which humans feature as “alien” to the protagonists are perhaps less common. It’s a difficult trick to pull off – not only do the aliens have to seem sufficiently human for a reader to find them sympathetic, but the humans also have to appear sufficiently alien for the plot to work. Felice manages this successfully – and this despite the fact humans are there in the narrative from pretty much the first page. It’s true the world-building is the most impressive element of Godsfire – and that nineteen-year jump in the story does make the story feel a little disjointed – but it’s worth noting that Heao is a well-drawn protagonist. Perhaps she’s a little too special in some respects, but she’s a thoughtful and sympathetic viewpoint, and this without sacrificing her alien nature.