Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dark Water's Embrace

I just read Dark Water's Embrace by Stephen Leigh, which is this month's free science fiction ebook, still available until August 31. (The Coupon Code is 9991300--instructions and download link at Because I don't want to do any more reading online than I already do, the publisher, Shahid Mahmud at Phoenix Pick, sent me a copy of the actual reissued book (originally published in 1998). I have to say that however you can find this book, it's worth searching out. I was totally absorbed; twice I stayed up too late reading it because I couldn't put it down (and because my new reading glasses allow me to read in bed once again).

The novel is narrated in fairly short chapters by a rotating cast of characters, most of them the human inhabitants of an alien world in the present, and a few the native inhabitants of that world in the past. As the story unfolds, the connections become increasingly clear, until the tension of finding out exactly how an alien character from the past will connect to a human one from the present becomes almost unbearable.

The story centers around an apparently hermaphroditic human character named Anais, and her struggle to fit into a pioneer human culture that has been stranded on an alien planet and attempting to keep its live birth rate at a point where the humans won't die out. The planet causes an extremely high rate of mutation and disease, to the point where the humans don't even name a child for the first year of its life. Anais is her culture's most able doctor, and has been examining an alien mummy found in a peat bog. The mummy turns out to be hermaphroditic too, and is eventually revealed as a clue to restoring the declining human birth rate. As she begins to examine the mummified body, Anais thinks:

"After all, it was the bones of this race's dead that had given rise to the name given to the planet: Mictlan, suggested by the lone Mexican crew member of the Ibn Batutta. Mictlan was the Aztec land of the dead, where the god Quetzalcoatl found the bones of humankind--and now, where the bones of another dead culture had been found. The race itself were christened the Miccail--"the Dead," in the Nahuatl language....The strange, whorled spires the Miccail had left behind on the northern continent, sticking out of Mictlan's rocky soil like faerie cathedrals of dull glass and carved with images of themselves, had been photographed and documented; it was from these that we learned the most about the extinct race. More would have been done, probably, but the near destruction and crippling of the Ibn Battuta not six months after the colonists' arrival and the resultant death of nearly all the crew members had suddenly, radically, and permanently shifted everyone's priorities.
Basically, it was more important to scrape an existence from Mictlan than to try to decipher the mystery of our world's previous inhabitants."

The novel is beautifully written; I especially enjoy the innovative pronouns in the parts told from the point of view of the alien named Kai, who is a "Sa," which means part male and part female: "Kai reached into the warm youngpouch and stroked the child gently, enjoying the shiver ker daughter gave as ke touched her. "Yes," ke sighed. "She's beautiful, yes."

One human character, Gabriela, from a generation before Anais', has left written records of her studies of the Miccail, studies which foreshadow the events that unfold in the novel:
"Now if sex, love, and passion are intricate, varied, and dangerous for us, then the sexuality of the Miccail must have been positively labyrinthian. I can only imagine how convoluted their relationships were, with the midmale sex complicating things. I wonder how they loved, and I try to decipher the answers from the few clues left: the stelae, the crumbling ruins, the ancient artifacts....What frightens me is that I'm certain it's important for us to know. The Miccail died only a thousand years ago....From what I've been able to determine, the collapse and decline of the Miccail began another thousand years before their extinction, possibly linked with the rapid disappearance of the mid-males, all mention of whom vanish from the stelae at that point."
No one hears what Gabriela has to say, however, until Anais discovers her diaries. Gabriela was exiled from the pioneer human civilization for being lesbian and therefore supposedly leading other women away from reproducing, so it takes Anais' own exile to lead her towards the discovery of what Gabriela knew and towards the even bigger discoveries that she herself makes.

The novel shows us some of what happened to the Sa, who Gabriela calls the "mid-males," and also provides a surprise when something Gabriela had already figured out is revealed--the Miccail are not entirely extinct.

Intricately plotted and excellently told, this novel deserves more readers. Although it has an entirely satisfactory ending, the novel has a sequel set in the same world, and I've already ordered a copy (entitled Speaking Stones).


kittiesx3 said...

I stopped reading part way through your review--I want to savor every word myself and then I'll come back and see if we line up :-)

Jenny said...

Oh, gosh, this sounds good, but it also sounds like it has a lot of made-up words, and I have an incredibly low tolerance for that. I am curmudgeonly. :p

Jeanne said...

Jenny, there actually aren't a lot of made-up words. There are a few titles for the aliens and some words from other Earth languages, but it's nothing like reading Paolini or Stephenson!

kittiesx3 said...

Loved it, VERY satisfying on all counts. I'm so glad you mentioned the code for getting this one.