My rating: 3 of 5 stars
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
A four-star book with a two-star ending which has, I think, much to do with the way Tepper approached the formulation of the work.
There is much here that is mysterious. On a world itself made bizarre with its volcanic activity and its beings which the human settlers treat as invisible, a veritable menagerie of questions requiring answers unfold, and as each arises I, myself, was driven to read on. The landscape Tepper presents is rich with interest.
Tepper presents is with a large cast of characters, but these are distinctive, and I didn’t find myself getting lost in the crowd trying to remember who was who. That is a feat in itself. Each is personable, and I became increasingly involved as the narrative switched from one, to the next, on and then back again, anticipating each sub-narrative with great interest.
The work is also intelligent, littered with philosophising about culture, psychology, ethics and other areas. This slips perilously close to the didactic at times and I’d take issue with some of the ideas, but most of these elements were interestingly presented and provided me with food for thought.
My concern in reading most of my way through the book was that the ending would be a let-down; that with so much enticement, Tepper would be unable to tie all the ends together and there would be the perennial cop-out of everything being somehow a dream or an illusion, but not so. Tepper planned the work exceptionally well. My guess is she started with the end and worked backwards. Like a crime author scattering clues through the narrative which mislead and seem unlikely to lead to a coherent ending, so Tepper with her situation and characters. Those loose ends it seems must be there at the end are done away with, and everything ends with a neatly-tied bow, all questions answered, all issues resolved.
And herein lies the irony. The bow is tied far too neatly, far too well. Everyone receives redemption. Everyone is rewarded. The bad guys are all dead, the good guys live on, everything is lovely and that, for me, was unsatisfactory.
In writing the book, in scattering her clues throughout, Tepper had a simple, plain-vanilla ending in mind which only seemed to develop in complexity, naturalism and realism in the writing itself. So it is that the expostulation had depth, but the culmination was shallow, the simple happy-ever-after that Tepper had initially envisaged. Where half-way through the book I would have praised Tepper for not presenting us with aliens that were clearly human beings dressed up in mutant costumes, at the end that is precisely how they seemed to be. Even the quaggia – apologies if I got the spelling of that wrong, there – which, of all the aliens, seemed destined to be that most unfathomable, ends up going its way to join the Council of Worlds and to fight for its rights as an autonomous individual, and suddenly he was Fred next door for all the difference in scale and physiology.
A two-star ending, then, because Tepper didn’t permit the four-star naturalism, realism, philosophical considerations, alien psychologies and realism that came into the story as it progressed to permeate her rather too neat ending, going instead with the simplicity she had originally envisaged.