What do sex, religion, and politics have in common? No, I don't mean the quaint idea that these are topics one should avoid in dinner party conversation and at the office. Not quite coincidentally, these important areas of life are wonderful sources of story plots. They provide an even richer trove of ideas for worldbuilding. Here are three new novels which play interesting riffs on religion in building their storylines and worlds.
SNARE, by Katharine Kerr (Tor, 2003) features a culture created by fundamentalist Islamic immigrants. Setting out to build their own society free of "demonic" influences, they ended up on the very edge of the galaxy, on Snare. The planet's vegetation is based on carotenoid-type molecules, which paint a range of orange, magenta and purple colors upon the spacious landscape. There is one large continent; the rest of the world is unexplored ocean. Snare's dominant native life form is a sentient reptilian species called the ChaMeech.
The Kazrak Muslims are not the only human inhabitants of Snare, however. Farther east, tribal horseriders and traders called the comnee wander the grasslands. Beyond their lands stretches the Rift, a formidable but not impassable gash in the continent's crust. On the other side of the Rift are the Cantons, a loose alliance of small cities and districts whose culture is reminiscent of 17th century Europe. The Cantonneurs have only sporadic contact with the comnees, mostly for trade. Kazraks know little about them, except to fear the powers of their sorcerers.
The ChaMeech range through the rift and points east. Sometimes killers of humans, sometimes friendly to or subdued by them, these large creatures hold secrets of their own.
All this sets the stage for a grand saga of adventure and discovery. In Kazrajistan, Gemet Great Khan maintains his power through intimidation and terror. So strong is his egotism and paranoia that he has ordered all his heirs and relatives killed, lest they pose a challenge to his rule. Resistance seems futileónot to mention fatal. But when cavalry Captain Idres Warkannan receives proof that Jezro Khan survived an assassination attack and is still alive somewhere beyond the Rift, he decides to risk the death squads anyway. Warkannan served with Jezro on the frontier and knows that he would make an infinitely better ruler than his brutal brother Gemet. For Idres Warkannan and his nephew Arkazo, their quest is to find Jezro and persuade him to come back to lead a resistance force.
For Zahn Hassan, also a former cavalryman, his mission is to find and kill Jezro before the would-be rebels reach him. Soutan, the sorcerer who brought the letter from Jezro to Idres, has an agenda of his own, based on impossible dreams.
Meanwhile Ammadin, a Spirit Rider of the comnee, has reached an impasse in her spiritual life. Things are not working in accordance with her beliefs. Zahn's presence, after Ammadin rescues him from a near-fatal beating, acts as a catalyst for her own inner crisis.
As these two groups evade and race each other across the continent, the tension level climbs. Kerr has written a tale where suspense and conflict work on many levels. On the personal level: Will Zahn and Ammadin become lovers? Will Zahn kill Jezro once he finds him? What leads an honorable officer to plot treason? On the action level: Who will get to Jezro first? Who will survive the hazards of the long trek? Will the ChaMeech prove to be killers or allies?
On the worldbuilding level, there are also many mysteries to be unraveled. Early on, it's already clear that Snare is a lost-colony world, settled by people who couldn't get back. The how, when, and why form an intricate puzzle, however, to which the answers are gradually revealed in the latter part of the book. Along with the big puzzle, there are many little ones, which readers may have fun solving for themselves. For example, it took me half the book to figure out that the "shens" were actually dogs, the term being derived from the French "chiens." And I'm still bemused by how this relates to the origin document that says settlers were allowed to keep two small mammal species. "There was no dissension, for all loved the beasts known as the eeka and the cat."
Religion is extremely important to the building of Snare's various societies. The Islamic faith has had two additional prophets on Snare, and a fourth is expected. Middle Eastern Islamic rules and dress for women have survived intact. (Head coverings and head-to-toe veiling are common but apparently not mandatory.) Warkannan carries a copy of THE MIRROR OF THE KORAN ("Mirror" because it's translated from the original Arabic, which has mutated on Snare to become a new language.) Warkannan and Jezro, each in his own way, are devout Muslims who manage to be modern and pragmatic within the boundaries of their culture.
The Cantons have a religion which combines Christian and Judaic elements, with One God, rabbis, nuns, temples with an Ark, and crosses in honor of the prophet Joshua bar Josef. Most Cantonneurs, though, consider themselves scientists and are not observant. The comnees believe in a multitude of gods and spirits which are mediated by the Spirit Riders. The story's denouement deals fairly gently with the religions of the book, but its revelations shatter the comnee religion. Ammadin is left with the challenge of creating a new belief system that will make sense to her people.
SNARE is a big, complex novel. I very much enjoyed it. The vistas—both geographical and imaginative—are striking, and well worth the time a 591-page book demands.
My only quibbles are small ones. The author "telegraphs" Soutan's deviousness long before Warkannan catches on. More subtle gestures and behaviors by the sorcerer would have added more suspense about his motives. Also, while the explanation that cloned super-soldiers were the ancestors of one group is plausible enough, the statement that they were brought to maturity in flasks is less so. Humans become real people in families and community. Without such acculturation, it's hard to imagine them being human enough to set up a new society. Even wolf-raised children are more believable than flask-raised ones! Finally, the Stone Woman dialogues at the end are interminable. Did every human in the party have to quiz her separately?
These minor points notwithstanding, I can happily recommend the book to any science fiction reader who likes good storytelling and good worldbuilding.
Snare, by Katherine Kerr
Naomi Kritzer's FIRES OF THE FAITHFUL (Bantam Spectra, 2002) is a first novel that builds an intricate world and plot on the premise of religious conflict. Eliana, the main character, is a young musician studying at an isolated conservatory. She gets caught up in the struggle through Old Way songs, which her fellow students play surreptitiously even though such music is forbidden, and through her roommate Mira. Mira turns out to have a secret tied to the wars and devastation which have wracked the land.
The official religion has parallels to some pagan belief systems. Its deities are a Lord and Lady who accept the believer by bestowing the gift of magery upon him or her. For most people this merely means being able to conjure up a small magefire ball to light their way in the dark. The influential Circle which works for the Emperor can do much more. Besides the Circle, the other powerful institution is the Fedeli, a priestly order who are charged with maintaining religious orthodoxy and stamping out the Old Way.
The Old Way strongly resembles Christianity, at least Marian Christianity. There is one God and her son Gesu, whose life is recounted in THE JOURNEY OF GESU. A quotation from this holy text introduces each chapter of the novel. Some are quite reminiscent of passages from the gospels. ["If you would journey with me, turn your back on your home, on your comforts, on all that you know. Then follow me."] Others are very different.
Because the heroine ends up leading a rebellion, which seems likely to reach the capital and take on the state religion in the sequel, the conflict may sound like a subtle replay of Christian history. It isn't, quite. For one thing, the two religions' features are imaginatively jumbled. It's the Old Way that incorporates dance into its rites, and holds them outdoors. The Fedeli's reign of terror against heretics is a parallel to the Inquisition. Eliana herself is skeptical about the different abstentions that both religions demand. She comes to see herself as a fighter against oppression rather than a true believer of either faith. Even that role comes to her by circumstance. Fortunately, when she falls into it, she has the strategic and leadership talents required.
The setting has the "feel" of Renaissance Italy, achieved largely through the names and the music. For a novel that's primarily a personal quest journey, the worldbuilding is much better than usual. The events are full of action. Much tension builds as it becomes obvious that even worse is to come. The book's biggest lacks are in character motivation. Eliana and the POW camp's charismatic but brutal commander are well developed, but most secondary characters come across as two dimensional. There's a strange situation with a former student named Giovanni. He challenges Eliana's right to lead the rebel prisoners, but is suddenly won over by being given the title of Generale. I look for Giovanni to cause more trouble in the sequel.
FIRES OF THE FAITHFUL offers the fan of non-generic fantasy a new take on heroism and religious wars.
Fires of the Faithful, by Naomi Kritzer
EXILE'S HONOR (DAW Books, 2002) is the latest novel in Mercedes Lackey's ongoing Valdemar saga. By now this major world of Lackey's is a "second home" to some fans, and has been explored by many other fantasy readers as well. In light of the series' popularity, it's surprising how few reviews the books receive. Not only do mainstream media ignore it—we SF and fantasy readers expect this for our genre—but seldom does LOCUS or any other science fiction magazine take more than passing notice.
That's too bad, because EXILE'S HONOR springs a few surprises on Lackey's standard themes.
It opens in Karse, a land which has been Valdemar's adversary from time immemorial. The Karsite establishment is ruthless and secretive, and ordinary people have few chances to better their lives. Almost the only route to upward mobility is the military, where ability counts as much as family ties. Alberich, the title character, has worked his way up from barmaid's bastard to Captain, and takes understandable pride in his military skills.
But danger looms for Alberich. He begins to have flashes of foreknowledge. These "sightings" have helped him save lives and avoid ambushes, yet he has to pretend his actions were just taken by coincidence. If the Karsite Sunlord's priests suspect that he has psychic powers, he is toast. Literally.
In fact, this happens. Trapped and thrown into a locked shed by the Sunlord's minions, he hears them preparing to burn him alive. The fire chokes and sears as it licks around him. Just as he gives up hope, a beautiful white stallion bursts through the blazing walls, mindspeaks Alberich to mount him, and carries the burned and semi-conscious soldier on a wild dash across the Karse-Valdemar border.
It makes a powerful opening situation, vividly described. By the time Alberich realizes that his life has been saved—and changed—we are already rooting for this unlikely new Herald trainee.
All this may sound like so much gobbledegook to readers unfamiliar with Valdemar, its dazzling Heralds and their sentient equine Companions. For those who have never read about that world, be assured that it's not very hard to pick up the basics. Actually EXILE'S HONOR is one of the easiest Valdemar books to "get into" without prior exposure. Most readers who like character-oriented fantasy fiction will enjoy it.
The book's middle section follows Alberich's struggles to accept his new role. As an older Herald candidate and a foreigner, he does not fit well into the Herald's regular training course. This problem resolves itself when the elderly Weaponsmaster takes him on as his assistant. In this role, Alberich's experience and philosophy of war prove invaluable to the young trainees. He constantly reminds them that however hard and demanding he makes their practice bouts, real combat will be much worse.
The last third of EXILE'S HONOR brings the inevitable showdown with Karse. Much to Alberich's surprise, when the time comes, his divided loyalties have melted away. He still tries to avert harm to the ordinary people of Karse, but Valdemar's tolerance and honorable traditions have won his allegiance.
Religion has hitherto been slighted in this series. This book gives it more attention, if not as much as it receives in the two books reviewed above. Overall, the Karsite priests are a nasty lot. Besides their penchant for burning people, they are greedy and power hungry. Alberich's struggle to retain his belief in the Sunlord despite the priests' corruption makes up a poignant part of his inner journey. He manages to do so, because in Haven he meets an ethical Sunlord priest, who has opened his temple to the city's poor. This thread makes a subtle point about freedom of religion and its benefits. Many different faiths flourish in Valdemar, as opposed to Karse where a faith maintained by force leads to outrageous abuses.
Lackey often defies the "musts" of genre fiction. In some cases, this doesn't work out well. The rushed endings of BY THE SWORD and MAGIC'S PRICE are disappointing examples. In this book, after the action climax of the battle, the last 70 pages or so are all upbeat. I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall. It never did. Yet I liked this twist on standard structure. The characters had been through so much struggle and tragedy already, it seemed natural to give them a happier interlude.
EXILE'S HONOR is a must-read for Lackey fans, and a good introduction for others who'd like to visit this land of magical white equines and their brave human partners.
Exile's Honor, by Mercedes Lackey