I'm currently behind on reviews, so don't be surprised if the recent reviews are a bit sparse.

Tales of Nevèrÿon

Cover of Tales of Nevèrÿon.

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

Plot summary

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.


We are never out of metaphysics, even when we think we are critiquing someone else’s.


If you can write down a woman’s or man’s name, you can write down all sorts of things next to that name, about the amount of work they do, the time it takes for them to do it, about their methods, their attitudes, and you can compare all this very carefully with what you have written about others. If you do this, you can maneuver your own dealings with them in ways that will soon control them; and very soon you will have the control over your fellows that is slavery.


I wrote down his name, Norema thought, and made one mark for every day he came to work and another for every day he failed to come, if after a month I showed it to my father, and said, yes, here, my father’s grumbling would turn to open anger, and he would tell him to go away, not to come back, that he was not worth the time, the food, the shelter, and the man would go away and perhaps die … And Norema felt strange and powerful and frightened.


Both in time and space, where money is, food, work, and craft are not: where money is, food, work, and craft either will shortly be, or in the recent past were. But the actual place where the coin sits is a place where wealth may just have passed from or may soon pass into, but where it cannot be now – by the whole purpose of money as an exchange object.


So much time and thought goes into trying to figure out what the comparative worth of all these skills and labors are. But the problem begins with trying to reduce them all to the same measure of coin in the first place: skilled time, unskilled time, the talk of a clever woman, nature’s gifts of fish and fruit, the invention of a craftsman, the strength of a laboring woman – one simply cannot measure weight, coldness, the passage of time, and the brightness of fire all on the same scale.


Money, like a mirror, flattens everything out, even though it looks, at first, like a perfect copy, moving when things move, holding shape when they’re still.


Money, like a mirror, flattens everything out, even though it looks, at first, like a perfect copy, moving when things move, holding shape when they’re still. Yet money is a faithful mirror – for the more he works, the more he is paid; the better he works, the better he is paid … except that more and better, in that mirror, flatten to the same thing.


There are certain thoughts which, reflected by language in the mirror of speech, flatten out entirely, lose all depth, and though they may have begun as rich and complex feelings, become, when flattened by language, the most shallow and pompous self-righteousness.


Money always is where goods and work aren’t.


it occurred to me that language always has the choice of development two ways. Consider: you’re inventing language and you come on an object for the first time, so you name it “tree.” Then you go on and you find another object. You have the choice of calling it a tree-only-with-special-properties, such as squat, hard, gray, leafless, and branchless, for instance – or you can name it a completely different object, say: “rock.” And then the next object you encounter you may decide is a “big rock,” or a “boulder,” or a “bush,” or “a small, squat tree,” and so on. Now two languages will not only have different words for the same things, but they will end up having divided those same things up into categories and properties along completely different lines. And that division, as much or more than the different words themselves, will naturally mold all the thinking of the people who use that language.


I have come seriously to question the whole concept of money, and the system of profit and wages by which it works. After all, under the old system, when we paid in kind, if you took a poor apprentice into your house and rewarded him with a meal from your table, a bed in your store, the shelter of your own roof, and the tutelage of your craft, then your apprentice was essentially as rich as you were, having his share of all that supplied the quality of your life. But if you take the same poor apprentice and pay him with money – pay him with the pittance of money one pays an apprentice – all you do is emphasize his poverty by your riches. How can one expect even a good boy to remain honest under such abuse and insult?


If we have not pledged ourselves to death before capture, it is only because we both know that a living slave can rebel and a dead slave cannot.