Mary Gentle – Ancient Light

A few years after her breakthrough Science Fiction novel Golden Witchbreed Mary Gentle wrote a sequel called Ancient Light (1987). Golden Witchbreed described the mission of an envoy to a humanoid alien planet after first contact had been made to determine the future status of the planet. As the aliens lived in a post-technological world with a rejection of technology this formed the main base of conflict for the story. Now the main character of the first novel returns after several years in a different role than before.

With the return, Gentle also brings back characters of the first novel, also in different positions, but they feel a bit too conveniently placed. Several times I wondered how they got there. It can be explained, but it seems Gentle wants to re-use older characters and not bring in too many new ones which she has to set up again.

For me the main problem with the novel was the main character. A first person narrative was used like before. In the first novel I complained about the main character being a poor choice as an envoy, this has worsened in this novel. During the course of the years the main character has gone through some bad problems which have made her mentally unstable. How she managed to have a decent career in the meanwhile I don’t know. Her return is more of a flight to one environment where she had bad experiences to another one where she had similar ones. She behaves melancholically, confused and erratic. Nevertheless few of the people around her seem to take of notice of it or take action upon it. It might be a great challenge for a writer to present such a character but in combination with the first person narrative I mainly irritated me. I didn’t care for her at all and with a first person narrative you don’t have any alternatives that make it more bearable.

It was mainly because of this narrative that I could not fully enjoy the novel. For the first third of the novel the behavior of the main character dominated the course of the story which just didn’t seem to go anywhere. It was somewhat a struggle to get through. Fortunately at that point the story took control and forced the main character to move around in a more coherent direction. It is a shame that Gentle took this approach to tell the story, because it is essentially a very good one. Viewers of Star Trek may be familiar with the so-called Prime Directive about human involvement in alien affairs, especially when there is a technology discrepancy between the cultures. This is sort of the base for the plot and Gentle handles it in an excellent way. Overall the plot is quite good and much better than that of the first novel where the plot played a secondary role to presenting the alien culture. In this novel that is of lesser importance because it doesn’t need to be introduced which gives the story a better flow.

One other thing did trouble me somewhat, also related to the position of the main character. Apparently there is quite some experience in new contacts with alien planets, but this seems to be of little impact. Of course nobody is perfect, but there does seem to be a lack of competence at times to deal with tough situations. This just felt odd.

So all in all Ancient Light is a novel with a good plot but a very poor main character. My feelings are mixed as I couldn’t enjoy it fully because the main character often irritated me too much.

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