by Katharine Kerr
Tor, 2003, ISBN 0-312-89045-1
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
The cover blurb says, "On the planet Snare, the descendants of Islamic fundamentalists war with the descendants of scientists, and the alien natives, for the fate of a planet." Let this be a warning to you against reading cover blurbs.
It's not 100% false. We do have the descendants of Islamic fundamentalists. We do have the descendants of scientists. We do have the native intelligent species--though something in me balks at describing beings living on their own planet where they evolved as "aliens." We even have a fourth group, a third human population, a nomadic culture technologically more primitive than either of the other two human populations. We even have some degree of conflict which could have major consequences for the fate of the planet--after all, with no conflict, and nothing important at stake, where's the story?
What we don't have is a war amongst these groups--especially not between the descendants of the Islamic fundamentalists and the descendants of the scientists. In fact, the only war is a civil war amongst the Islamics, in which the issue is responsible government, not religious purity. What we do have is a much more interesting story.
It's ten years after the accession of a new Great Khan, Gemet, amongst the Kazraks, and he has proved to be both paranoid and repressive. One of his first actions was to kill all his brothers and other close male relatives who are khans, i.e., recognized as legitimate possible heirs. Taxes are so heavy they're grinding the population down into poverty. The army and the upper levels of society go in fear of a secret police-like group called the Chosen. In this atmosphere, a sorceror arrives from the Cantons, bringing word to cavalry officer Idres Warkannan and a few of his friends that one of Gemet's brothers, Warkannan's good friend Jezro Khan survived and escaped, eventually reaching the Cantons, where he has lived lived for the past decade. The sorceror, Yarl Soutan, has a letter from Jezro, and a plan for bringing him back to Kazrajistan to overthrow Gemet. It's not long before Warkannan, Soutan, and two younger men are traveling across the plains and the Rift towards the Cantons. Meanwhile the Chosen Ones, acting on the word of an informant that Warkannan's "investment group" is plotting against the Great Khan, have sent one of their own onto the plains, under the cover of being a cashiered cavalry officer (complete with very real public flogging in a market town where lots of comnee tribesmen will witness it). Zayn Hassan has volunteered for this duty because he knows Idres Warkannan can't possibly be involved in treason, and wants a chance to prove it.
As the two groups cross the plains and the Rift, it becomes clear that Soutan has an agenda beyond being the powerful advisor of the new Great Khan, and that a lot of his "magic"--identical to the "magic" employed by the Spirit Rider of the comnee tribe Zayn has hooked up with--is simply solar-powered advanced technology. What's this technology doing on a planet that's otherwise at a 16th- or 17th-century level? Why do the comnee tribes have it when the more advanced Kazraks don't? Why are the tribes longer-lived and healthier than other humans on the planet? And where did Zayn's "demonic" powers of memory, which damn him to Hell after death, and in life mean that the only real fellowship he can have is with the other similarly-damned Chosen Ones, really come from? Along the way, both groups have encounters with some of the lizard-like natives, the Cha'Meech, and more questions also suggest themselves. It's not until they reach the Cantons that some answers start to present themselves, and Warkannan and Zayn each start to find out what real trouble is.
This is a more complex story than is apparent from initial examination, and an enjoyable way to spend a few hours.