Men Are Trouble
By Cheryl Morgan
Liz Williamsí first novel, The Ghost Sister, was very much a Sheri Tepper-style book with lots of interesting material about gender. Since then Williams has been bravely using different settings for her novels rather than mining the same world book after book. However, a good setting is a good setting, so it was perhaps inevitable that Williams would return to Monde DíIsle. Pleasingly she doesnít do so that obviously, and sheís going back because she has something new to say.
The story of Darkland begins on two very different planets. One, Muspell, looks like it will be the setting for a series of books. It is a diaspora world settled mainly by people of Celtic and Nordic descent. The northern hemisphere is controlled by women, primarily through an organization called the Skald. But elsewhere on the same planet is Darkland, a forbidding continent controlled by a group of white male supremacists known as the vitki. The heroine of the story, Vali Hallsdottir, is an assassin who works for the Skald.
More of all this later, but the book actually opens on a third world, Nhem, which is a classic Sheri Tepper patriarchy. It is ruled by stupid, venal old men with big beards; the sort of people who cry out about how they are defiling themselves at the same time as they vent their lusts. The women are obliged to cover up completely, may not speak, and are bred for stupidity and docility. We donít get to see much of Nhem. Vali drops in, pays a visit to the Hierolath, does something rather more nasty to him than what he does to her, and is away again. Thus are the Tepper bad guys brushed aside. Williams has a rather more unpleasant enemy for Vali to worry about.
It is, of course, impossible for Vali to get into Nhem without a male escort. This isnít a problem. The Skald is happy to employ men where they might be useful. But the Skald agent sent to provide cover for Vali turns out to not only be a traitor, but to be a disguised vitki. And not just any vitki either; he is Frey Gundersson, a man with whom Vali has a considerably amount of history. That history happens to include the terrible claw marks that disfigure Valiís face.
The point here is that, unlike your traditional Tepper male, the vitki are smart. They recognize that women have uses other than breeding, and indeed use women agents at times. They are also very interested in techniques of mental control. They have developed methods for dominating animals, and are looking to extend that to control of humans. Which is perhaps why they are so interested in a world they know as Mondhile, a place where the local inhabitants are rumored to have a very close relationship to the natural world and something of an, er, deep affinity with animals.
At this point those of you who have already read The Ghost Sister will be nodding sagely and anticipating parts of the plot. However, it is probably better if the reader, like Vali, knows very little about Mondhile and its people. If you donít know what the locals mean by Bloodmind then you can share Valiís ignorance. If you do know youíll be beating your head in despair at her inability to ask the obvious questions. But I think this is much better than producing a book in which knowledge of the previous volume is a requirement to understanding the new one.
I found Darkland to be a more obviously feminist book than anything else Williams has done of late. It doesnít have the sort of innovative treatment of gender issues that is liable to get it on the Tiptree short list, but in terms of pointing out that men are rather smarter and more dangerous that Tepper tended to make out it is certainly a worthwhile book. It addition, it also happens to be a fine science fiction adventure. And it is already set up for a sequel. You canít ask for much more than that.