Healer’s Sword – by Lynda Williams – (Cdn – Vancouver, B.C.) – Find it here
Premise: The Sevolite galaxy-spanning empire doesn’t like change. Erien wants a science academy in a realm where the rulers prefer no one even knows science exists (far too objective and free-thinking you see). Horth wants to reform medicine practice in the battle fleet where the noble-born crews consider medical treatment beneath them. Ilse is tired of being pointed out she’s only Blue Demish and besides, being a woman of rank, albeit not-good-enough rank, that she’s shameless for insisting on knowing how to use a sword. Amel is tired of being treated like a sex god. Too much sex can be boring. But he’s extremely high born and every woman wants him. And these are just some of the problems on the character’s minds.
Or in other words a few clues that we are dealing with a complicated, fully realized society rather different from our own. I knew I was in for a tough time when I asked Lynda for a freebie sample of her Okal Rel Saga (my book-buying funds even more limited than my food-buying funds) and she pressed the seventh volume of the series (ten or twelve in all I think) into my eager hands.
Point is I’ve missed six volumes of revelation concerning background and character. Yes Lynda references the past, but as an author she’d be a fool to explain too much of what went on before. Wouldn’t leave enough room to develop this volume. She had to take it on faith that by the time someone buys this book they’ve already read the first six. In theory anyone new to the saga should start with the beginning volume. That’s the only way to be fair to both themselves and the saga as a whole. But not I, for I am automatically fully biased in incomprehensible ways. “Fair” isn’t part of my lexicon. (You can tell I’m a critic.)
So, plunging headfirst into the novel lacking the appropriate background proved hard sledding at first. I mean, even if you know nothing about Sherlock Holmes, you can start reading one of the canon and feel comfortable because Victorian-era England is reassuringly familiar courtesy of countless movies and TV shows.
But the Sevolite Empire? Had to start ransacking my meager knowledge of history to orient myself.
There is no one culture the Okal Rel culture resembles. Medieval Europe in some aspects. The Italian Renaissance. Medieval Japan. Even Victorian England. All adding up to one of the most rigidly self-imposed social orders I’ve ever come across. Normally not my cup of tea at all. Sets my teeth on edge. Had visions (again, as in The Alien Collective) of going berserk and hurling hand grenades in all directions, though this time to start the revolution. This realm needs a Lenin. Or a Groucho Marx. Extreme etiquette has that effect on me.
But that’s the thing. The entire civilization is based on social etiquette, on rank determined by birth, by race, by clan, and to some degree, by talent. Here race is not racism. While spanning the stars humans have evolved away from each other in subtle ways which make one group more suitable for certain tasks than others. H.G. Wells implied the same for our future in his description of the Selenites in his First Men in the Moon, though there is nothing so extreme as that here, but there ARE subtleties involved everyone is constantly aware of.
Further, overall cultural homogenization is not encouraged in this society. There are no multiple-globe globalists here. Every given planet, every clan, every order has its set and subtly different way of life (albeit within a loose general framework spanning the empire as a whole) which no one is allowed to deviate away from, unless they think they can get away with it.
I think the core of what fascinates the aficionados of the Okal Rel Saga is that, appearances to the contrary, this is NOT some sort of mindless feudal order frozen in time. It’s more like a pack of wolves with nothing to eat except each other. Possibly I exaggerate. (Although, come to think of it, that’s an apt description of court life in the medieval period, or human organization of any kind, any boardroom for that matter.)
Think of it as a human version of Tetris. Practically everybody is scheming how to fall UP. But the interrelationships are so complex it is a matter of finding or creating the properly shaped niche you can fill before someone else does. Or perhaps it is more like the Fan Expo I attended. Crowd movement in the huckster section was so dense it became gridlocked. Only when one person moved could another, and another, then the next, and so on, only to generate a new gridlock until the next shuffle-round started up. Suspense and anticipation in this novel is built on the prospect of social-mobility forced, planned, or accidental, and it is all so subtle you really have to pay attention.
The funny thing is, indeed the source of much of the humour in this book, is that no one is as confident or socially secure as they pretend to be. Individuals must address each other by rank, employing the proper greeting, the proper tone, the proper intonation, etc, but if, for whatever reason, you’re unsure of your precise relationship, you break out in a sweat for fear of giving offence by choosing the wrong words or tones. Rather like two Japanese nobles unfamiliar with each other and unsure which of them should bow the lowest. Reputation is at stake. And worse. This is the kind of society where highborn bring their personal sword champions with them to private parties in case a minor slight results in a duel. Best to have substitutes do the fighting. Otherwise no one would live long enough to get any work done.
Mind you, there are ways of politely backing down without loss of face. Duels are rare, and usually only to the point of first blood drawn. Still, quite a nuisance in the daily scheme of things. Where’s the humour? Well, in one case at a wedding jam-packed with serried ranks of highborns one poor chap is tasked with reciting from memory the genealogies of all assembled. A very important ritual matter, and one that could result in a massacre if he makes too many insulting mistakes. Pulls it off without a hitch. A miracle. Everyone impressed, and bemused. And somewhat disappointed. A few duels would have livened things up.
Personally, I think I’d rather fall on my own sword than endure living in so self-conscious a society. Like being a perpetual teenager. Too painful to contemplate. But for them as understands the game, as relishes the ability to seize the moment, life is positively gleeful and full of promise.
What of Ilse Martin, the Blue Demish sword fighter who’s inherited an organization that’s SUPPOSED to be run by a man? (Before you sneer, it wasn’t that long ago women were forbidden lines of credit and required a male secretary to sign for them if, for example, they had inherited their deceased husband’s company and were running it as the new CEO.) As Lynda wrote to me: “Think of her as a middle-class, moderately eccentric heroine trying to make sense of innovations from the top by more radical royalty-types in a conservative, neo-feudal empire. Easy, right? :-)”
Well, no, it isn’t easy. Oh, easy enough for me, the deeper I delved into the book and slowly picked up on what was going on. But not easy for Ilse. Radicals, conservatives, kin and non-kin, virtually all are unlikely allies because their primary concern is their own future, not hers. Trying to firm up and improve her lot in life is like trying to grasp a litre of mercury with both hands. No simple task, and rather dangerous.
William Gibson was once asked how old a child had to be before they could understand his novels. Stupid question, but he gave a brilliant answer. “Old enough to understand betrayal.”
Indeed. The plot is slow-moving at first, as everyone is jockeying for position and scouting out what others are up to. Major changes are being set-up, but not everything, hardly anything, is what it seems. Momentum builds. Then all hell breaks loose, because all human society is built on pretense, and when things get success-or-failure intense, everybody abandons the rules and goes for the jugular. Betrayal is mankind’s favourite sport, and it is revealed in full glory in the fast-paced, nigh dizzying, conclusion of this volume.
Rating: Entertaining. At first I thought I wasn’t going to like this book. Couldn’t identify with the social order. Or the character’s worries. Plus the complexity of it all grated on my nerves. But gradually, despite my ignorance of the explanatory revelations no doubt present in the previous volumes, I began to appreciate the challenges facing Ilse and many of the other characters. And began to wonder more and more what was actually going on and who was trying to screw whom (in the political sense – since the biological version was straightforward in its presentation, a way of relaxing from all the political scheming and jockeying for position you might say… social position that is), and how it was all going to wind up.
The immediate situation is satisfactorily resolved, or at least exposed and thwarted, but the main characters live on, no doubt to fresh complications, disasters and adventures. By the final page I had come to grasp why the fans of the Okal Rel Saga find it so addictive. It’s still not quite my cup of tea, but for those anxious to immerse themselves in a complex, highly detailed and imaginative fantasy world, this is as vivid as it gets. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if some fans’ situational awareness is greater in Lynda’s world than in their own.