Kate Elliott, 1992 (ebook released 2013)
New ebook version - Free copy for review provided by NetGalley
Premise: Tess Soerensen isn’t sure what to do. Out of school, out of a bad romantic entanglement, she isn’t looking forward to going home where her powerful brother can use her talents in his schemes. She thinks about giving herself a bit of time to assess her options on a backwater world she loved as a child. However, other people’s plans mean that she very quickly has to make a series of decisions that may affect not only the direction of her life, but the role of humanity in the galaxy.
I was surprised when I saw that this book was written in the 90’s. It may have a few artifacts of that time, but I’m glad it’s being re-released in ebook for a new generation. I found this book charming and highly engaging.
I’ve seen this cited in a few places as a coming-of-age book, but what it is, is a finding-oneself book. (Which I far prefer at this point in my life!) Tess is 20-something, she’s an adult, but she doesn’t know what she wants out of life. She knows what other people expect of her, but she’s never had the space to figure out what she expects of herself. This is what the events of Jaran give her.
So I loved Tess. I loved her enthusiasm for intellectual puzzles, her particular talents in translation and cultural empathy, her rock-hard stubbornness.
I also loved the genre mish-mash that is this book. It’s science fiction, at the largest level. Tess lives in a multi-planetary human society which is ruled over by a larger alien empire. She has access to high levels of technology, and she is valued because of her ability to pick up languages, including non-human languages. However, so far as many of the other characters are concerned, it’s almost a fantasy or a historical fiction. The bulk of the action takes place on the planet Rhui. Rhui doesn’t know that it is watched over by a interplanetary government. Think Star Trek, and a planet that people are prohibited from visiting due to its low tech level. Rhui is in a late renaissance equivalent, I think. The Jaran, the people who Tess spends much of the book coming to know, are more or less a matriarchal, less bloodthirsty spin on the Mongols. They are a nomadic society who live on the steppes. Plus, a core thread of Tess’s story is a romance.
Elliott balances all the sci-fi/historical/romance elements extremely well throughout, I thought. Certain tropes risked being obvious, but overall the story was just so good that I didn’t mind.
The culture of the Jaran is intriguing and different than most, Tess is delightful, and all of the supporting characters are interesting and believable.
Both people who prefer interstellar intrigue and those who like complex low-tech cultures should give this one a try.
4 Stars - A Very Good Book