The Nowhere Hunt, Jo Clayton (1981)
Review by Ian Sales
The Haestavaada are desperate. They are an insectoid race, and one of their worlds is without a queen. A juvenile queen was sent from another Haestavaada world, but it was intercepted by enemy insectoids the Tikh’asfour, and the ship crashlanded on the world of Nowhere, which is currently travelling through the Zangaree Sink. This last means the okanet, a primitive planet, is hard to reach, and high technology won’t work on its surface. Three ships of Scavengers have already landed on Nowhere, and the Tikh’asfour are preventing anyone else from approaching. So the Haestavaada hire the Hunters of Wolff and ask them to assign Aleytys to retrieving their missing queen.
Roha and Rohit are non-identical twins and members of the Amar, Nowhere’s native race. Roha is the Dark Twin, she has some sort of magical connection with the planet, mediated by frequent ingestion of a local hallucinogen. She’s not happy about the arrival of the crashlanded Haestavaada and their queen – she calls them “demons” – or the Scavengers – she also calls them “demons”. She persuades the warriors of her people, led by Churr, to do something about it. So they trek into the Mistlands, where a nasty death awaits the unwary – thanks to hidden pools of quicksand, thin skins of rock over boiling hots springs, poison bushes, bushes that fire poisoned seedpods, the piranha-like Kinya-kin-kin, floating ghosts and the Mistlanders. The Amar attack the downed Haestavaada but are beaten off, suggesting the trek was more to introduce the Mistland’s perils to the reader than because the plot required it.
Then Aleytys is parachuted in – literally, she reaches the planet’s surface in a small capsule launched from a ship in orbit, in order to avoid the Tikh’asfour. Immediately after landing, Aleytys allows herself to be captured by the Scavengers. She allows herself to be beaten and raped by the Scavenger leader, Quale. But it’s okay, but she’s letting him do it. She needs the Scavengers to do the heavy-lifting, to fetch the queen and then escape in one of their ships with her. However, the Scavengers have been on Nowhere for a few weeks – the book’s chronology is hopelessly confused – and have yet to find the queen. They’re also being picked off one-by-one by the Amar.
Fortunately, Aleytys knows where the queen is and can guide Quale and his men through the Mistlands to her. As a prisoner, however. And the Amar are hovering around the edges, still picking off the Scavengers. It takes them three days, and by the time they reach the crashed Haestavaada spaceship, less than half of the two dozen Scavengers who started out have survived. Aleytys persuades the stranded aliens to go along with her plan and pretend to accept Quale’s help – even though it’s clear Quale plans to sell the queen to the highest bidder. But on the return to the Sc’venge’s’ primitive fort, Quale and Aleytys are captured by Mistlanders and tied to a tree. While trying to escape, Quale is killed by a floating ghost which sucks his mind from his body.
The diadem which gives this series its name, and Aleytys some of her special powers, also contains the minds of three previous wearers: Shadith (the musical one), Harskari (the wise one) and Swardheld (the warrior one). Since Quale’s body is there for the taking, Swardheld jumps out of the diadem – with Aleytys’s help – and takes over Quale’s body. This is a permanent arrangement. The two manage to the get the queen and surviving Haestavaada back to the fort, Swardheld finds the keys to the Scavengers’ spaceships, which he had hidden from everyone, and they successfully make their escape and deliver the queen.
After a couple of books in which Aleytys was presented as a strong, albeit somewhat over-powered, heroine in high-tech space opera universe, the series has back-slipped to men treating Aleytys violently once again. And not just her: on her arrival, Aleytys discovers that Nowhere’s resident xenologist had been taken as a sex slave by Quale. Happily, it’s not gone so far as to turn back into a peplum space opera, all swords and slavery and spaceships, but Aleytys’s strategy on Nowhere is deeply problematic. On the plus-side, Clayton is a dab hand at depicting alien societies, and the Amar are rendered quite convincingly. The flora and fauna of Nowhere are less convincing, however, although one or two are quite amusing. And, despite their lethality, there’s no much jeopardy in the plot. The spear carriers all die, but the major characters survive – and it’s pretty much obvious from the first chapter.
Having now read six books of this series, I’m still a little mystified by their evident popularity when they were published. These days, they’re mostly forgotten – as indeed are most of Jo Clayton’s novels (and she wrote a lot of them). I get the appeal of a special snowflake protagonist – it’s one of the reasons Dune has remained in print for fifty years – but was the level of sexual violence inflicted on Aleytys ever really acceptable back in the late 1970s and early 1980s? I don’t recall it appearing in the science fiction I read at that time – although a lot of the books I devoured then treated women very badly in other ways, or ignored them altogether.
There are a further three novels in this series, and another seven novels based on the characters in Aleytys’s diadem. The Nowhere Hunt was a step backward after Maeve and Star Hunters. I hope the next book, Ghosthunt, doesn’t continue the backwards slide.