I first read Mary Gentle's Orthe series ten years ago, when I picked up a copy to take travelling. Back in those days, before e-readers, a two-week holiday meant a book the size of a brick that would last the whole fortnight. Now, of course, you can load five or six new novels onto a Kindle or Kobo, but in 2002 e-books hadn't been invented. and I couldn't afford many new books. Orthe was definitely worth the cash-sufficiently so that the novel survived periodic paperback cullings whenever my books threatened to take over the house. It's been on my shelves ever since (you can tell I'm impartial here), and I recently reread the series with a more critical eye.
Orthe really is a doorstop of a novel. My 2002 volume comprises all three Orthe tales: 'Golden Witchbreed', 'Ancient Light' and the novella 'The Crystal Sunlight, the Bright Air', which is set in the same world but otherwise doesn't have much to do with the main novel, so I'll leave it out.
Anyway, the book tells the tale of Lynne deLisle Christie, a human envoy posted to the newly discovered alien world of Carrick V/Orthe. She promptly goes native and has various thrilling adventures (in Golden Witchbreed) and then returns to the world years later as a representative of a private company (whose business model appears to be based upon the corporates of Alien) and discovers just what Orthe's contact with humans has done to their society (Ancient Light)
Orthe reads like a travelogue or an autobiography rather than a novel. This is the book's greatest strength, but it's also its main weakness. The writing is incredibly immersive and engaging, but in true travelogue style there's a fair few parts where nothing much happens. It's like, you know that Indiana Jones must find time to have a cup of tea occasionally in between rescuing damsels and fighting Nazis, else he'd die of thirst? But somehow the movies never take time out to describe this, unless the tea happens to be toxic or the cup is the Holy Grail or some such? Well, the point I'm trying to make here is that in real life there's far more tea than Nazis, and that's the sort of book that Orthe is. The interludes aren't uninteresting-there's intrigue and politics aplenty, but sometimes Christie spends a lot of time hanging around trying to get an audience or recovering from whatever harrowing adventure she has just embarked upon: it all adds realism, but it's slow at times.
Fortunately Christie is the sort of person you enjoy spending time with. The book's first-person narrative is used to great effect and this adds to the absorbing nature of the novel. Christie is the first person who's ever been in extensive contact with the Ortheans, so you explore the world as she does and see them through her eyes. It's a great way of explaining the society without too many infodumps (more on that later). Christie is either a bit of a Mary Sue, though, or else merely extremely likeable-the resident xenoscientists refuse to socialise, openly criticism most aspects of the world and can't wait to leave the planet, but Christie gains admittance to Orthean society with relative ease. More, she discovers important information-such as the Ortheans' gender differences-in casual conversation, whereas the scientists who have been studying the Ortheans for months still haven't worked out their life-cycle. Maybe that's the point-the other scientists don't make friends with the natives, whereas Christie takes the trouble to do so.
The native Ortheans are portrayed as roughly human height, with six fingers, and a nictating third eyelid, but they're close enough to humans for the protagonist to have sexual relationships with them (yes, more on that later as well) But there's a fine line between too alien and just alien enough for humans to empathise with your characters. Gentle falls into the same inescapable trap as many authors-aliens written by human authors are inevitably filtered through human perceptions and senses and often end up looking like us with bits stuck on. She does do a good job of thinking through the cultural implications of a society where children don't develop gender until puberty-much like Ursula K LeGuin, but with much more human characters.
Regardless of this, there are a lot of strong points in the novel, and swords and lost technology are always fun elements no matter which sandbox you play in. And Orthe really is one hell of a sandbox, despite its similarity to Earth. The novel really shines in its delicious descriptions of its world and the people who live there. If there's one reason why you should read Orthe, then it's the sheer lyricism Gentle invokes when describing her settings. Here's a passage from Golden Witchbreed that describes the ancient city of Kirriathe.
"Knife edged shadows lay across our path, the straight edged shadows that only occur in cities. The sun was low in the south behind us. Ahead there was barely anything left standing. Walls jutted up from moss covered hummocks. Pale-leafed scrub forced its way between the paving stones. The weather had rounded the edges of the slabs, worn them smooth. The walls might have been carved, once. Further on, open to the sky, there were only lines on the barren earth to show where walls had stood. A great flight of steps went down a slope, beginning nowhere and ending nowhere, growth over by a feathery silver-green weed. We stood on the steps. They were as rounded as if the sea had worked on them."
It's a fabulous description, and it's why the collected novels are 980 pages long. Orthe is a book that yearns for the Kindle.
If the descriptions are fantastic, then the society I found distinctly more prosaic. The world of Orthe is a post-holocaust, semi-mediaeval society whose denizens engage in many familiar activities; they fight with swords, sail ships very similar to Earth ships, wear similar jewellery, and the main character walks more or less unnoticed amongst the Ortheans by means of a hooded cloak. This allows for many cool scenes, but seemed rather clunky after reading more alien stories like 'TK'Tk'Tk' by David D Levine and 'The Legend of St Ignatz the Provider' by Samantha Henderson. Orthean society seemed very human in comparison, and I have to admit that Orthe doesn't feel as exotic to me at thirty as it did at twenty.
But the trilogy must be twenty or so by now, and maybe just having a female envoy as the protagonist in a sci-fi series was a bit of a step in those days. Regardless, the settings and societies depicted feel familiar enough that you could imagine the novel taking place in a hitherto undiscovered country on Earth. But Orthe is an immersive world and there's enough nice touches and exoticism to keep the setting from being too cliché-the eternal Hexenmeister and the mysterious town of Kasabaarde come to mind.
The weakest part however, is the relationships. Christie embarks upon a short-lived sexual relationship with an Orthean in the first novel. He's swiftly introduced and fades out within a chapter for no other reason, it seems, that to establish that it is possible. (his mother releases Christie from prison, but her motives have more to do with disagreeing with the faction that installed Christie there than helping her son's lover). Christie becomes friends with a mercenary, Blaize, who's one of the best supporting characters in a novel that's crammed full of them, but he ends up with the daughter of Christie's best friend, and by the time Christie realizes that she has feelings for the friend herself, it's far too late to do anything constructive about them.
It's a shame, because the characters individually are fantastic-each character has their own motivations, and minor players are described in loving detail. This seems to be a trait of Gentle's writing (anyone remember Grunts and its perverted halflings) and it's yet another thing I really like about her work.
Another thing I like is the morality. Everyone has a believable agenda: there are no good guys and bad guys. Orthe is grimly realistic in its depiction of colonialism; its exploration begins with a government team working for high-minded ideals and ends with the invasion of profit-led private corporations hungry for new technology. The company Christie works for in Ancient Light contributes to a civil war (most of it instigated by Christie's sheer presence as a trustworthy human) followed by a seemingly unstoppable onslaught of personal betrayals and an ending that's distinctly bitter-sweet. In that was the novel reminded me a little of ME3, but everything does these last few days.
Just like the Mass Effect series, the alien society is just human with bits on, but it's all so much damn fun you just don't care.