Maeve, Jo Clayton (1979)
Review by Ian Sales
After the sexual slavery and super-special snowflake abilities of series protagonist Aleytys in the first three books of the Diadem of the Stars, Maeve came as something of a pleasant surprise. It’s almost as if Clayton had given up on spaceships-and-sandals science fantasy and decided to write proper science fiction instead. Not only does Aleytys have a wardrobe throughout this novel, but it consists chiefly of functional clothing (and the clothes she wears as a hostess in Dryknolte’s Tavern are actually provided by the landlord). She also has sex no more than half a dozen times, with partners of her choosing (and one is pretty much a relationship).
Aleytys has landed on the eponymous planet, and left the smuggler she’s been travelling with, because she wants to find a ship to take her back to her home world of Jaydugar and her son (stolen in the second book of the series, Lamarchos, but recovered off-stage during book three, Irsud). So she heads for the world’s only city, guided by one of Maeve’s cat-like natives, Gwynnor. One of the her diadem’s little tricks is an instant translator, which allows her to speak any language she encounters. This later proves useful, when Aleytys and Gwynnor leave the plains, enter a forest and encounter the people there – also alien and native to Maeve, but not the same as Gwynnor, who does not speak their tongue:
“Ineknikt nex-ni-ghenusoukseht ghalaghayi.”
Aleytys heard it as a string of nonsense syllables, then a knife pain stabbed her through the head and the meaning slid like white beads on a string against the blackness in her mind. The people do not know your smell, younger sister of fire. (p 39)
The forest people – the cludair to Gwynoor’s cerdd – have been having trouble with the Company, which, in fine science-fictional tradition, is busy exploiting Maeve, including harvesting the forest home of the cludair with a giant harvesting machine. So Aleytys gives them a hand and destroys the harvester. She also captures the Company director, who is persuaded to stop logging in return for the cludair supplying a “tribute” of wood.
Having sorted that out, Aleytys and Gwynnor carry on to the city. Gwynnor heads back to his home village, to find it in dire straits – Company men have been raiding it and taking away all the young men and women, and the cerdd’s sacred drug, maranhedd. In the city, Aleytys gets a job as a hostess at Dryknolte’s Tavern while she tries to figure out how to get off-planet. There she meets Hunter Grey, who reveals that the director has been taken over by an alien parasite, which is due to spore. And when it does, a University ship in orbit will raze Maeve to bedrock to prevent the spores from escaping. So it’s up to Aleytys, Hunter Grey, Gwynnor and another cerdd, two cludair, and Maeve’s chief mystic, the Synwedda, to kill the director before the parasite can spore.
I’m not entirely what happened between Irsud and Maeve, but I certainly welcome the series’ new direction. Aleytys has gone from being a victim to a woman with real agency. Admittedly, she is still a snowflake. As well as the instant translator, she is a healer – and heals several people from near-death injuries during the book, including herself – and those three personalities trapped in the diadem also lend a hand on occasion. One, of course, is a warrior and a superb fighter. Another is a gifted musician. Both of these talents get used in Maeve. It does mean Aleytys is never really in any danger, but at least these magical talents are used in service to the plot rather than simply to make Aleytys a more dramatic heroine. Previous novels in the series were driven by jeopardy – Aleytys is captured and must escape – but Maeve starts as a travelogue, introduces a mystery, and then sets a pretty, er, deadly deadline for resolving it. Also, the women characters in the novel are all strong – either council leaders, the only cerdd of Gwynnor’s village to do something about the Company raids, a pie-shop owner not above knocking heads on occasion, and the aforementioned Synwedda. It means Maeve is not the problematic read earlier books were, and while the setting all feels a bit like well-used furniture and the planet’s fate is never really in doubt, it all hangs together entertainingly. Hopefully, the remaining books in the series are more like Maeve than, say, Lamarchos.