June 14, 2004

King's Blood Four
Necromancer Nine
Wizard's Eleven
Jinian Footseer
Dervish Daughter
Jinian Star-Eye
by Sheri S. Tepper

I used to really like Sheri Tepper's stuff; whenever a new book came out, I was all over it. She has a vivid imagination, and she can tell a story. Ultimately, though, her message started to take over, and that's tiresome. And it happens that a good bit of her message is that Women Are Wiser Than Men, and another bit is that Religion Is Bad, and being a male Christian I found that even more tiresome.

Still, I remember her early books fondly; and I was quite surprised to discover, whilst doing a little site maintenance, that I'd only read and reviewed a single one of her books in all the time since I started reviewing books on-line (December of 1996). So it seemed like a good time to re-read some of them, and see how they have held up.

The books listed here are six of the nine books in Tepper's "True Game" series. The first three books are among her earliest, and introduce her world. It's a planet somewhat like our own; mankind's arrival on the planet was long enough ago to be a dim and dusty legend when it's remembered at all. And the part of the planet where our story begins is the land of the True Game.

It seems that after the arrival of men and women on the planet, some of them began developing strange talents. Some could fly, or lift heavy weights with their mind, or teleport, or read minds, or (horrors) raise the dead. Somehow--it's unclear just how, as Tepper changes her story in the course of the series--the notion of the True Game arose. Those who have a power, or Talent, are Gamesmen; those who don't are Pawns. The Gamesmen are the elite, and they spend much of their time gaming (read, fighting) with their peers. Being near such a battle, or grand game, is dangerous; Gamesmen draw energy from the immediate vicinity as they use their Talents, and an unwary pawn can be frozen to death if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or the right place at the right time, for what else are pawns for?

It's easy to die in such a game, so children of Gamesmen are usually sent to a boarding school, where they will learn the rules of the True Game and how to play it well, and this is where we meet Peter, our hero. The first three books follow his history as he is first used in a game by a man he trusted, gains his Talent, and takes his revenge. Along the way he explores a goodly bit of the planet, and discovers some truly odd things, including the Gamesmen of Barish. The Gamesmen of Barish resemble chess pieces; there's one for each of the first eleven legendary Gamesmen and women. And Peter discovers that if he takes one of the pieces in hand, he can awaken that legendary invididual and use their talent.

The first three books are OK, in a science-fantasy sort of vein, if flawed. Tepper's writing improves in her later books, and it's clear that her concept of Peter's world evolves considerably from book to book. The series begins with the notion that the True Game is a kind of super-chess played with real pieces; in fact, the metaphor doesn't work out in practice, at least as Tepper tells the story. None of the "games" we actually see resemble what's described in Peter's schooling in the slightest. And certain segments are simply ludicrous; in the middle book, for example, Peter discovers the "Base", which is where the spaceship from Earth first landed. It's a fascinating and baroque place, where the descendants of researchers from the original crew spend their time breeding and studying genetic monsters. The trouble is, their motivation for doing so is too absurd for words; it's one place where I think Tepper's ideological preoccupations got the better of her.

The next three books in the series, which I didn't re-read this time around, involve some adventures of Peter's mother, the famous shapeshifter Mavin Many-Shaped. They are prequels to Peter's part of the story, and contain some background for the concluding three books, but as I may yet re-read them I won't say anything more about them here.

In the third book, Wizard's Eleven, Peter meets an intelligent and resourceful young woman named Jinian, and after saving her life a couple of times not unreasonably falls in love with her. Jinian takes center-stage in the final trio. Jinian Footseer tells of us Jinian's life from her childhood up to the climax of Wizard's Eleven, and here's where the nuisance factor begins to scale up.

Jinian Footseer is a much better book than the first three. The story is more interesting; Tepper's writing has improved; and the world is more deeply and richly described. What's not to like? Two things--first, it almost doesn't seem like the same world; it doesn't quite fit. Second, Tepper's ideology shows up again. Those times when Peter saved Jinian's life? She arranged for it happen, so that he could save her, so that he'd come to love her. Peter's amazing feat at the end of Wizard's Eleven, that saves the day? Most of the work was actually done by Jinian, behind the scenes.

Yes, it's interesting to see the events from two points of view, and it's true that this didn't bother me much when I first read these books. It's the cumulative effect that matters. And then, in the final two books, the series takes on the aspect of a kind of environmentalist parable, including a truly scurrilous slam on the Roman Catholic Church.

Have you ever noticed, while eating something tasty, a bit of an off-note in the flavor? An off-note that gets not louder but more noticeable with each bite, until finally you just can't ignore it any longer? That's how I feel about these books. Well-written; interesting tales, well-told; and an agenda I simply don't buy.

The moral bottom-line of the series is this: it's evil to punish those who can't learn to do better. And those who can't learn to do better should be killed. I am not, as they say, making this up. Tepper refers many times to a particular Talent, that of the Midwives. The Midwives are able to see the future in a particular way--that is, when they deliver a child, they can tell whether the child will ever develop what Tepper calls a soul and I'd call a moral compass. And if not, they kill the child then and there. The child will never be able to learn better, so punishing it for wrong-doing is evil, and letting it harm others is equally evil; better kill it.

Now, at first glance it appears that there's something to this: the prominent Gaming families eschew the use of midwives, and we certainly run into a number of sociopaths among their number. Arguably, Peter and Jinian's world would have been a better place if these conscienceless men and women had been strangled at birth. And then it becomes clear that Tepper extends her principle not just to sociopaths, but to any human being that is incapable of learning--the severely retarded, for example. Or those in a persistent vegetative state. In one book we encounter two of the genetic monsters bred at the Base: a fat man with no legs, and a pair of Siamese Twins with only one pair of legs between them. As they are described to us, they are clearly sociopaths--but later on, Tepper makes it clear that their shapes are of themselves evil, and that children with such monstrous shapes should have been killed at birth. Yes, she really says that.

It's always dangerous to presume that an author believes the things her characters avow, or that a book's clear message necessarily represents the author's own views; Swift didn't really think that selling Irish babies at the meat-market is a good idea. But I don't see any sign of satire, here, and it's a thread that runs right through the six books. And frankly, it's repulsive.

Posted by Will Duquette at June 14, 2004 08:38 PM