What a grand adventure. The tale of Gorgik, starting out free, becoming enslaved, working his way out of slavery through court and the military. The tale of Small Sarg, his friend, partner, slave, master, and them defeating slave-owners. Norema, learning from an old wise woman. The warrior-woman Raven. All of them get full, fleshed out cultures. Each culture has different gender roles, mythologies, opionions on child rearing, sex, contraception, love: all explored in these 300 pages.
Also, once more, Delany takes on slavery, this time in Fantasy. And economics. And gender. And how money changes entire societies just by existing. It’s deep and good and it puts down all the Fantasy and sci-fi economists (Pratchett, Stross, you name them) a notch and takes first place. And he doesn’t stop there – his description of how money changes society and flattens value is continued into how language flattens meaning, too! Delany, man. Dense, brilliant, beloved.
And all that with an equally brilliant epilogue, pretending that the whole story is just a reconstruction of the Culhar’ text, a narrative fragment written around 5000 BC, of which different versions have been found in all the ancient languages, at all the ancient excavation sites. Leslie Steiner, a black Cuban (her mother from the US, her father an Austrian Jew) finally puts them all together to end up with a translation of the original Linear-B fragment. (And the translation excerpts tie in with the story so cleverly.) It’s beautiful. I love it.
See also: An excellent blog post by Jo Walton
Beware: full spoilers! Also probably incomplete and possibly incomprehensible.
Gorgik grows up in the capital city, Kolhari, as fairly happy merchant assistant’s son. But then, when the child empress Ynelgo takes power, there’s a rebellion. Gorgik is enslaved and works for five years in an obsidian mine, before the sneaky Vizerine Myrgot takes him into her household as pleasure slave. He barely learns to navigate court when he’s set free (after gaining a moment of the Empress’s attention and thus the hate of her right hand, Krodar) and is sent to be a captain in the army. He takes to his education, thankfully, and does well in the years after, with general competence and minor smuggling. Afterwards, we gloss over private service as mercenary, groundskeeper, overseer, bargeman, guard etc. When he’s 36, he is well-rounded, at home in all environments.
Next up: Norema. Norema lives in a fishing and sailing culture. Her mother a first mate, her father building ships, and she learning lessons from the old wise woman, Venn. Venn has been all across the world, and has figured out how to navigate by the stars, how to build lots of things, improved a writing system or two and she’s all around a genius. She passes on her lessons in erratic ways. Meditations on the power of writing follow. (Venn, on her travels, lived in a locally normal group marriage with other women and their hunter. She left her son behind there when she continued her travels. Their society is super interesting: different gender roles, interesting genital taboos and roles, all around fascinating construction.)
And then there is something very deep happening, about how signs change in a mirror. About stories changing themselves in retelling: what happens, is the writing. What you remember first, is the first reflection. What you remember remembering is the second reflection, and it is crucially not like the original at all. And, it goes on: so is money, for example (see quote). Money changes everything: the role of craft, the role of genders. And money flattens everything into one dimension. And, sometimes, language does too.
After Venn’s death, the red ship comes. Male captian, all women, looking for recruits, met with hostility. The ship is burned. Norema marries a dude from another island, leaves with him, they have a son and two daughters. A plague kills the son, and her husband wants to take a second wife, and when she agrees, he leaves her. She goes to Kolhari, her children dead.
And then we have the dragon riders, all girls, because they tend to die.
And then we’re back with Norema, on a mission for Madam Keyne, her employer to Lord Aldamir. She meets the warrior woman Raven with the same goal. They figure out the guy doesn’t exist and nearly get killed. They pick up Juni, a local girl (nice culture clash between macho culture and female macho culture!)
And then we have Small Sarg, a wild barbarian prince, captured, first purchased by and then teaming up with Gorgik to kill slavers. Again: the bear and the twink. They use the slave collar for deception and for kink, lol. They encounter parts of Gorgik’s past that he barely remembers, killing the Vizerine. They meet Norema and Raven. Gorgik nearly remembers the Vizerine. Everything comes together, and ends.