My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have so many mixed feelings on this novel.
So… context first. I picked it at random off the shelves, and decided to read it because I liked the title. If you look at the cover, note that it shows a blond woman and two men, a ship in the background–that and the blurb make it sounds like a classic space opera type story.
The cover is bullshit. This is a science fantasy space-opera about a religious mageocracy who rule space travel through magic and enforce a highly unequal society, particularly against women (many of them wear veils, and there is a blatant Jewish/Muslim feel to much of the setting.) The title comes from their unique terms for space travel; subspace, or its equivalent, is called “Purgatory” and looks like literal rivers of fire. Maguses draw their power from “hell” and when ships travel via FTL, their speed is measured in increments of “heaven” so “5/12ths of heaven” is the speed that the Sun-Treader ship travels at. (Presumably, getting to 12/12ths of heaven means you’re dead, though this was never explicitly confirmed.)
PRetty cool, huh? Not conveyed on the cover.
Also not conveyed on the cover: The woman, Silence Leigh, is explicitly described as very pale with black hair. That, and the setting, makes me think of her as somewhat Asian. But she’s been whitewashed, or perhaps just blond-washed, for the cover purposes. It’s doubly annoying since her colouring is relevant to the book’s cultures (indicative of caste/class). But no, some twat had to make her blonde. God forbid anyone find brunettes attractive *grumble grumble*
Annnyways. Main plot: Silence Leigh is a crack pilot who has been disenfranchised and lost her inheritance, essentially because she is a woman (this is what it boils down to). She comes to an arrangement with two guys; they’re gonna sign up for a threeway marriage so they can all get citizenship in this empire they’re in. (The empire has a 0 immigration policy, you only get citizenship through marriage or birth; one of the men is a citizen but the other isn’t, and a M/M marriage doesn’t confer that citizenship but apparently a MMF one does.)
I mean… on the whole, it’s really a pretty progressive book in some ways. There’s a little bit of internalised misogyny here and there, and some outdated stuff on gender. But this novel was also published in 1986 (I wasn’t even born, lol) so *for its time* it was pretty darn good on that front, imo.
One of the more interesting things is that although Silence agrees to this marriage for cynical and monetary reasons, she does actually develop deep, platonic affection for both men. It’s not quite a marriage, and for anyone hopeful of a NK Jemisin style 3 way sex scene, you’ll be disappointed–no sex in the book–but it’s still reasonably well done and enjoyable.
And yet, despite the ideas, ambition, and surprises, I only mark it at three stars >.>
Structurally, the story drags in places. The pacing is odd, the plots meander or else everything happens at once; the novel lacks focus. “Earth was their destiny” says the tagline, but the subject of Earth isn’t raised till almost the end. And yes, this is an older book where, I guess, people were happier to accept cliffhanger endings, but I was still frustrated that the novel felt unfinished, as if it cut off right when it was starting to go somewhere. Presumably the sequel is a direct follow-on, though whether I can find it in this house is anyone’s guess.
Silence herself is a bit… exasperating. She feels less like a character and more like a lens with which to showcase the ideas and worldbuilding. Her reactions are inconsistent and she behaves in ways which further the plot or stall the plot as required. I found her hard to to relate to. Again, the rules have changed for modern SFF, but ideas alone are not enough to sell me on a book.
For all that it was engaging, and had a kind of refreshing vigour (and I do appreciate space opera written by women, particularly). I am interested enough in those ideas that I’ll be keeping an eye out for other books in the series, if I can find them.