(2008) Sheri S. Tepper, Gollancz, £12.99, pbk, 508 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08046-1
Seven different perspectives on the life of one individual become key to the salvation of the human race is this odd mix of SF and fantasy. A young Margaret staves off the boredom of a Phobos colonisation programme by inventing imaginary friends to entertain her: queen, spy, warrior, healer, shaman, telepath and linguist, all aspects of her personality. But soon she is wrested from the dull world of the colony and returns to Earth, where overpopulation has forced drastic measures. The benevolent Gentherans enforced an arcane system of population control; excess humans are taken as slaves by less friendly races, most of whom would prefer to be rid of humans for good. Upon her return, this is what Margaret becomes; not one, but seven slaves, each formed from one of her imaginary guises. The story follows the seven Margarets in their trials on seven unique worlds. Not consistently though… The 'prime' Margaret is who we experience most of the story through, while 'Queen Wilvia' is barely dwelt upon. All will eventually play a part in solving an ancient riddle that could give humankind the chance to save their planet, and end the slavery of their race.
The science fantasy in the book is well played and rarely feels strained, apart from the 'seven lives' thing: I still cannot figure out what was going on there. Tepper grounds the story in the everyday and mundane, almost always focussing on the lower eschelons of society. That in itself makes her worlds far more believable; slave Margarets are not educated enough to understand bizarre technology, rural Margarets rarely have access to it. The book's main drawback is that it is rather dull. The groundwork for the rest of the novel is laid in the first half, but very little of it is particularly exciting. Only when an element of danger starts weaving its way into the second half do we get an idea of the bigger picture. It is a rich world that Tepper has created, populated with bizarre creatures and, in true fantasy fashion, these creatures are driven by Good or Evil. Some Margarets are enslaved by vicious and uncaring alien masters, others encounter kindly and beneficent creatures that offer their help unreservedly. Unfortunately, none seem especially memorable. The worlds that the Margarets encounter are similarly faceless, either harsh and inhospitable, or peaceful and bountiful.
This is not a novel that shouts its strengths, nor ends with a bang. True to its fantasy roots, it has a fairy-tale ending, the marriage of a king and queen. The route there is well constructed, with plot threads woven together expertly, and with an elaborate prose style. But much of the narrative is uneventful, too much time spent setting the scene, and there is the feeling that at times Tepper is being deliberately obscure. It is a highly readable book, yet it often felt unsatisfactory. It is difficult to place The Margarets; its balance of SF and fantasy is pleasing and rarely jars and the story is involving, but often drags and seems to lack direction. Tepper should be applauded for a unique style and confident meshing of genres, but I feel that it is the story that is saved by her style, rather than vice-versa.
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