(2011) Sheri Tepper, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 498pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09495-6
A world that has been devastated by an event known as the ‘Big Kill’, is now facing another threat. The waters of the sea are gradually rising and within a century will swallow all the land, wiping out all human life.
Wandering through Norland, Abasio a traveling pedlar, with a talking horse called Big Blue, finds himself caught up in the aftermath of the death of a princess from Taingawa. As part of the custom, a child called Xulai has been chosen to bear the soul of the princess back to her country. Abasio is incorporated into her entourage, which includes a warrior, Great Bear to guard her and her guardian, Precious Wind. Her journey will include a stop at an Abby to broaden her education. But Alicia, Duchess of Altamont is looking for revenge and searching for more of the machines, from what is call the ‘Before Time’ due to the influence of a figure from before the ‘Big Kill’.
The set-up for this world is interesting, with the things that would normally be explained as magic, creatures, talking animals and curses, explained and understood by most of the characters as remnants of pre-disaster science. However, the narrative felt slow to me, initially. There was detail about how the background of this world came about and it worked. But it gave the impression that a lot of the interesting stuff has already taken place or is happening somewhere else. Meanwhile, the progression of the lead characters journey has the sense of being drawn out. The villains never give the impression of being as great a threat as they could be. When the one of the characters is put under threat, it is dealt with and the pace beings to slow again.
Then with 150 pages to go, the narrative starts to rush things. Xulai returns to Tingawa and her true destiny is revealed, as a path for survival in the face of rising water. In the interests of spoilers, I will not reveal what it is. However, for some people, it may the moment when the suspension of disbelief snaps. While it has happened in other works, the scale and application of it, just is accepted by everybody too easily. The villains are dealt with quickly, giving the impression that their demise is more to do with just having no loose ends left.
This story has clearly had a lot of thought put into it with regard to how this world would function. The difficulty that I had with it, was that the ideas and scenarios, hinted at in the narrative, sounded more interesting then the eventual story. Personally, I felt that the pacing seemed too slow and then too fast. While the direction at the end is unexpected, it does feel as if it came from a different story. As it is, this novel has its moments, but as a whole, does not fit together as well enough as it could have done. However, I appreciate that this is just my view and realise that there are probably a lot of other reviews out there, defending this novel.
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