Damn near a five star read, just on the basis of the linguistic world building. Had I reviewed this book immediately after reading it, it would have been an easy five star rating, so I’m rounding it up to five stars. The story itself is more than solid, and so are the characters, but man, the language!
The story is told from three different cultural POVs (three main POV characters enriched by a sizeable side cast, handled very well). There are the Tjakorsha, proto-vikings: strong warriors who put stock in unflinching bravery in their harsh cold home. And the contrasting Naridans, which read proto-…medieval-Japanese? who feel more dainty, but make up for it in technology (“dragons”, but more like big crocs). When a tribe of vikings has to flee their home and arrive as refugees rather than as raiders, the two groups have to try to work together. On the sidelines, there are also the Alabans, who scandalise the Naridans by recognising five genders (and where part of the story takes place).
Cultural integration is tough, and the story doesn’t make it easy on them. Neither group is painted as bad, and the conflict is great. Agrarian vs hunters. The agrarians have dragons and technology and governance and everybody has a roof over their head, but their culture is strict and unbending and women are forbidden anything interesting, plus there’s imperial politics. The vikings have total equality between men and women, and often read more fun, but at the same time are extremely bigoted against same-sex relationships. And so on, and so on. I enjoyed all the exploration, but that was not what blew my mind.
You see. The language thing. The language thing is so good. Use of language to characterise culture will always make me happy. And I’ve never seen it done like this:
The Naridians are pretty well-done – Due to their super rigid structure, they have a huge amount of pronouns and words for self-identification, e.g. to signal their own status when talking about themselves. This is translated as always talking about themselves in the third person. “Your brother knows this.”, he said.
But the Alabans, with their five genders? They naturally speak a language with five gendered pronouns: masculine man, not-masculine man, neutral, feminine woman, not-feminine woman. The language is supposed to be tonal, and the chosen gender is indicated with diacritics: mè is ‘high masculine’, mê is ‘low masculine’, mē is ‘high feminine’, mé is ‘low feminine, and me is uninflected/neutral. These are used for all pronouns, so sentences can be like “Yóu weigh nothing. Î’ve carried heavier loads.”. This is used throughout the book, and starting to fluently read gendered meanings in sentences is a game changer. I loved it so much – when the concept was explained in an early infodump, I was intrigued but thought nothing more of it. But when chapter 3 started with a “Shé”, I was so sold.
And then you have the interactions between these cultures, of course! For example, when learning Naridan, the Viking women always refer to themselves as “this man”, because “To say you are a woman here is to say you are less than a man”. Damn!
This book is part of the 2022 Backlog Incident.