Mary Gentle – Golden Witchbreed

Although Golden Witchbreed (1983) is not exactly Mary Gentle‘s first novel, it did mean her breakthrough as it allowed her to write a sequel and publish more. As an early novel it means that her style and writing abilities have probably improved since then. This as the only other work by her that I read is Ash: A Secret History, written in 2000, 17 years later. Golden Witchbreed is part of the Orthe duology but in reality a standalone novel with enough openings to write more. Golden Witchbreed is a rather soft Science Fiction novel and probably limited by the knowledge of the author and the fact that it was written just before the dawn of the hi-tech age in which we now live. Gentle compensates this lack by introducing an alien anti-technological planet. An envoy is sent from Earth to improve relations. To prevent problems she only has limited technology with her and other limitations are included to make the story more fantasy-like than science fiction, although one could see it more as a blend, like Frank Herbert‘s Dune Saga or the Void Trilogy of Peter F. Hamilton. Either way Gentle tells a story where a normal character meets an alien culture to which a conflict with technology is added. This is basically the whole of the story. It is not a really original plot or set up so it all depends on how Gentle develops her story and characters.

First the weak parts. Overall this was mainly the main character. The envoy is young and female. This could be alright if she wasn’t behaving rather naive. She also doesn’t show to have much experience. Apparently nothing serious happened to her previous missions. Last of all she works alone which means she solely has to depend on the aliens. What annoyed me was that she behave much like an envoy should or else Gentle has a different perspective on the job. Strangely enough we get to see little of serious work by the envoy. Gentle mainly focuses on what happens around those activities and the envoy simply seems to lack skills and stumbles about too much. If she had a partner this could easily have been compensated. Besides that, her unrelated activities seem to have no impact. Overall she thus makes a poor and not very believable envoy.

So with a somewhat lacking main character, how does the story work out? Again this is mainly one thing and this is is the alien culture. Gentle manages to present it in a natural way, with many original details and ideas, supporting these with a lot of alien words to represent different concepts. This certainly makes it a worthwhile read, as Gentle’s prose is not that different from Ash: A Secret History.

The story and plot itself is not very complex or particularly engaging. It moves the story and Gentle mainly uses it to let the main character visit as many different places and peoples as possible. This does have a bit the effect of being a tourist trip. We rarely stay long enough in a place to immerse oneself in its unique characteristics. Although I complain about it one could also see it as a good point. Gentle manages to present these places interesting enough that the reader would have wanted to stay longer there. As such my opinion is mixed on this. Do we get too much or has Gentle just made sure the reader can’t get bored or used to a certain setting? With so many different settings the story seems to move quite fast. Nevertheless the overall plot does not as it is not that location related and the digressions are of minor importance to the main plot. Hence I got a slow-and-fast feeling when reading Golden Witchbreed.

The novel does has one quirk. It is told from a first person view, but the main character mainly relates in the now. We learn little about her past or motives. There is also a lack of information as if the main characters deems it irrelevant to provide the reader with details about topics which she is engaging in. Instead the reader has to wait until the topic becomes part of the story and we learn first hand what it is really about. I call this strange because I am used to it that such moments are used to provide the reader with some information. Not really info-dumps but it at least shows what the main character knows about the topic. Now it remain unclear. It seems she knows, but pretends she doesn’t, while later on she shows to do know more. I can’t really say if it is good or bad. It’s rather unusual and I wanted to note it here.

So my final opinion is a bit mixed. The well described and detailed alien culture is what makes this novel stand out, while the rest is nothing out of the ordinary. There are a number of weaknesses, but they don’t make the novel bad, just peculiar. Would I recommend it? One will just has to decide that based on my review.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.