Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Dark Water’s Embrace

Stephen Leigh
Completed 4/24/2020, Reviewed 4/24/2020
5 stars

This was a really terrific novel.  It was really well written.  It delivered quite an emotional punch and I could barely put it down.  It’s rather complex, with multiple story lines played out simultaneously and changing voices.  But I had no trouble following it.  It follows the descendants of nine stranded space explorers on a distant planet called Mictlan.  One of the descendants is a hermaphrodite and their mere presence throws the colony into disarray.  At the same time, it tells the story of the beginning of the end of the indigenous population two thousand years prior to human’s arrival.  It won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 1999.

The story begins with the discovery of a bog person, that is, the well-preserved remains of an indigenous sentient being on Mictlan, called a Miccail.  Anais is a doctor and is doing a forensic study on the remains.  She finds that the Miccail is a hermaphrodite, and seems to have been ritually killed.  Anais herself is a hermaphrodite, but identifies as female.  She feels that fate is slapping her in the face, bringing her this being at a time when she questions her own identity.  Rumors fly quickly throughout the small colony, and the big one is about Anais’ physiology as well as her sexuality.   You see all emphasis in the colony is on reproduction.  All women are expected to bear lots of children.  But there’s something about the planet, as well as the lack of genetic diversity, that causes miscarriages, high infant mortality, and deformities.  So the mere fact that Anais is basically celibate and possibly lesbian brings the angry focus of the colony onto her.  Their punishment for members of the colony who bring disruption is shunning, basically exile.

In parallel with this story is the tale of the Miccail hermaphrodite, known as KaiSa (Kai being their name and Sa indicating that they are the third gender).  The KaiSa is a member of a holy community which facilitates reproduction of the Miccail.  However, the leaders of one of the provinces of Mictlan are quickly invading its neighbors, with the aim to take over the world.  They have a special distaste for the Sa and believe they are interfering with reproduction, not facilitating it.  KaiSa’s mission is to try to broker peace with the invaders.

The story is complex; the book has a neat form that makes following it very easy.  All chapters told in first person are labeled “Voice” plus the name of the character speaking.  All chapters told in third person are labeled “Context” plus the name of the character whose action is being described.  All chapters about KaiSa are labeled “Interlude: KaiSa”.  Lastly, there are chapters labeled “Journal Entry: Gabriela Rusack” which are, well, journal entries of one of the original nine colonists who was shunned by the colony for being lesbian.  Together these chapters weave the dramatic tale of the fate of Anais, the colony and the Miccail.

The characterization is tremendous.  By changing the first-person perspective to tell the narrative linearly, we get a deep understanding of what makes many of the characters tick.  There is only one character I would call one-dimensional, that is Dominic, an elder who is violently pressing for Anais’ shunning.  But the four main characters, Anais, Elio, Maire, and KaiSa are all very well developed. 

The world building is also tremendous.  The Miccail society is expertly fleshed out by the KaiSa narrative.  We learn of their world, their religion, their sexuality, and their struggles.  It’s a very complete picture of an alien society.  And the author uses ke/ker as pronounces for the third gender which was very easy to follow.  Of course, this book is over twenty years old, so it is before the current use of xe/xer, or the use of third person plural pronouns.  The structure of the colony, known as the Rock, is also well developed.  It does help with both worlds that the author provides a brief glossary of terms at the beginning of the book. 

I give this book five stars out of five.  It really packed an emotional punch for me.  The sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia make it extremely uncomfortable, and more importantly, horrifying.  I identified deeply with Anais, Elio, and Maire, again, by virtue of the quality of the characterization.  There is a sequel which I may have to pick up simply because I so loved the characters and the world that Leigh created.  I believe this book and its sequel are out of print, but they are available in e-format. 

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