Sherri S. Tepper is one of my all-time favourite authors – A Plague of Angels and Beauty are books I recall with great fondness and a couple of years ago, I reviewed The Margarets here.
The waters are rising. Rivers have become fjords, swamps have become lakes, towns along the shore have been moved up, and up, and up again. Within the century, there will be only a few mountaintop islands above a world-wide ocean, and all land life, including mankind, will have ceased to be.
If this were not enough, a monster from the days of The Big Kill has awakened, a slaughterer out of time determined to eradicate all thinking beings. Arrayed against the monster are a dying woman, a fearful child and her two guardians, and a travelling peddler and his horse.
The blurb burbles on a bit longer, but the section I’ve included gives a reasonable idea of the main plotline. Once again, Tepper takes the idea of post-apocalyptic, dystopian world where a degraded remnant have survived a major crash in human civilisation – only to now face probable extinction. All that can save them now is the generosity of the Sea King, a formidable sea creature, and the genetic wizardry from a lost past. Tepper fuses fantasy and science fiction together more elegantly and convincingly than anyone else.
I loved the start of this story with the frightened little girl finding herself prompted to act in ways that don’t make sense – this beguiling protagonist sucked me into the story as the gathering threat surrounding this child is scarily powerful. Just as I settled down to read a particular story, it then jumps sideways into something else. And then, once more, shifts gear into something far more mythical, with the language and pace also altering accordingly.
In a genre where many authors are content to produce a series of books in a particular world, reprising the same characters and narrative voice, Tepper’s continual insistence on pushing herself right to the outer edges of her comfort zone is both admirable and risky. In this book she attempts to use a small number of relatively humble main characters to relate a world-changing epic tale – and I think she mainly succeeds. However, there is a section about seven eighths through the book where the pace suddenly drops away and the narrative drifts. It doesn’t last too long, before the story once more gathers momentum and we re-engage with the narrative with renewed urgency, but I do feel that at least some of that section could have done with being slaughtered in the interests of keeping up the narrative tension.
However, as ever, Tepper provides us with a layered, fascinating world provoking all sorts of hard questions about the direction of our current civilisation. And the book should be required reading for all politicians for that reason alone. At her best, Tepper is in a class of her own, and while I don’t think this book falls into that category, it will stay with me long after most of the books I’ve read this year slide into forgetfulness.