Review: The Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle

“For my part, I prefer aliens that look alien. Then when they ritually eat their first-born, or turn arthropod halfway through their life-cycle, it isn’t so much of a shock. You expect it. Humanoid aliens, they’re trouble.”

— Mary Gentle, The Golden Witchbreed

A few months ago, I finally picked up Mary Gentle’s science fiction duology, The Golden Witchbreed and its sequel, Ancient Light. The story that begins in The Golden Witchbreed is standard SF: A human ambassador arrives on an alien world to assist the first contact team, and finds herself snarled in local politics. The difference lies, first, in what those local politics turn out to be, and second, in Mary Gentle’s deft handling of character and interwoven plotlines.

The alien planet, Orthe, is inhabited by humanoid aliens who are just human enough to make the ambassador trip up — and the reader, too, if she’s not careful. The Ortheans are drawn with superb attention to detail. Most of the aliens that the reader meets in The Golden Witchbreed live in small holdings that answer to a larger, elected-as-needed assembly of representatives, and an elected monarch who rules by divine right. Mary Gentle does not make the mistake of having a One World Culture for her aliens, however, or even just a few variations on a theme.

As the ambassador travels away from the capital city, the reader gets to see one culture shade into another. I enjoyed watching the ambassador slowly adapt to Orthe. As her grasp of the language and social niceties moves from being trained, to being practiced, to being second nature, the vocabulary in her narration changes. The humans have classed the Ortheans as a pretech, but when a group of Barbarians arrive in the hollowed-out hull of an ancient flying machine, both the reader and the ambassador realize that something far stranger is going on.

The Golden Witchbreed is a good book, but it is not a complete story without Ancient Light. Ancient Light begins twenty years after the ambassador leaves Orthe. Political upheaval on Earth has left her without a government to represent — instead, she answers to the Company. Having discovered the ruins of an ancient civilization on Orthe, the Company wants to know whether any of the alien technology could be put to human use. Alien politics, human politics, alien religion, and the ambassador’s own shaky hold on her sanity raise the stakes in Ancient Light to the point where I finished this book standing up — because finding a chair would have meant looking away from the page.

Orthe is a world so finely balanced that mere observation by an outsider is enough to change the system. To me, these books read as a statement about invasion and colonization, though Mary Gentle never wields the message stick hard enough to make me confident that’s what she was trying to say. The Orthe duology is good science fiction, and has as much to say about our past as our future. I recommend these books without hesitation.