Rating out of 5:
Mary Gentle is the coolest speculative fiction author…
… was what I told myself the day I started reading Golden Witchbreed, which I had picked kind of randomly at the library. Even if this happened more than ten years ago, I still stand by the statement today.
Once I went to college, I picked anthropology as one of my majors and studied a few of the thousands cultures we have on this very own planet, all so different, so complex. These particularities could already (and have) give birth to incredible stories. But then, what about societies, cultures, races evolving outside of our planet, our stellar system, our galaxy?
A huge branch of speculative fiction is devoted to these questions: how we would meet other races and how the hell we would handle something that peculiar. I have read dozens of books speculating about the outcomes of such events. Golden Witchbreed is one of my favorites, riveting on many levels.
First, the beings populating the planet where the novel takes place, Orthe, are humanoid. Which is troubling for the main character, Lynne de Lisle Christie, as she must remind herself at all time that they are not human even though they do slightly look like it. Humanoid beings are a convenient tool. They are easier to imagine in their looks, thoughts and actions, but Mary Gentle didn’t choose to go the easiest way. Instead, she ponders upon the dangers of it, the risks of humanizing such beings to the point one would feel at home and then suddenly fall back into reality.
Second, Mary Gentle built a fascinating society, with its challenges, its divisions, but mainly its veracity. It is hard to translate your imagination into words, and harder to depict it to your readers so that they would see it as clearly as you. Gentle did that. Or, should I say, I assume she did because I have no way to be sure I see the same things as she does. But Orthe has always been and always will be as real as Earth to me.
I do not want to reveal too many details about the story. It would spoil the pleasure of the discovery for any potential reader. Let’s just say that anthropological/xenological science-fiction has another masterpiece in its pantheon.
This book is followed by a sequel, Ancient Light.