Friday, August 14, 2020

Ring of Swords

Eleanor Arnason
Completed 8/14/2020, Reviewed 8/14/2020
4 stars

This was a very different take on the first contact trope.  The book describes aliens responding to their first encounters with humans.  It explores what it means to be “people” and considers the topics of morality, war, sexuality, and gender politics.  It’s an ambitious novel that worked pretty well.  My only beef with it was that the names of the aliens were confusing, and that there were a lot of them.  I often wasn’t sure who was talking, other than two of the more prominent alien characters.  But overall, I liked it, finding it fascinating and well-written.  This book was nominated for an Otherwise Award for its exploration of gender issues.

Anna Perez is a researcher of intelligence in other species.  The story begins where she is working on another planet studying a species of jellyfish-like creatures that communicate with flashes of light.  A group of aliens called the Hwarhath come to the planet to work out a peace treaty with humans.  Their translator is Nicholas Sanders, an earthling who was captured by the Hwarhath, became a turncoat and sided with them.  Anna becomes caught up in the diplomatic endeavor, eventually being sent to a Hwarhath space station as an observer for a new treaty after the first one fails.  Over the course of the talks, Anna learns about the society of the Hwarhath and Nicholas’ tenuous relationship with them. 

The society of the Hwarhath is fascinating.  It is divided along gender lines.  Women are nurturers and safe.  They mostly stay on the home planet.  Hwarhath men are aggressive and dangerous.  They become soldiers in the society’s army, searching space for enemies to bring war against.  They are segregated from the women and children upon reaching adulthood.  Children are conceived by artificial insemination to prevent the men from harming the women and children.  Everyone in the society is homosexual and heterosexuality is seen as a perversion.  When they come across humans in space, they are aghast that they are mostly heterosexual, believing them to be barbarians for keeping the genders mixed. 

In one confrontation, the Hwarhath took Nicholas as a prisoner.  He became a traitor to Earth and joined the Hwarhath.  He also became lovers with a high ranking general in the military forces.  It’s an unusual relationship with the general, as these aliens are human-like, though fur covered, and it has not been decided whether or not humans are people or animals.  Nicholas’ primary role is as translator.  He has taught the English language to several of the Hwarhath.  He develops a friendship with Anna, as she is rare among humans to want to learn more about the aliens rather than fear and fight them. 

Anna is a great character, a scientist of Mexican descent who is the first female human the Hwarhath get to know.  She conveys human society to them.  Through her interactions with the Hwarhath , with Nicholas, and through the peace negotiations, we learn all about their society gradually rather than in one huge info dump.  There’s no sexual tension between Anna and Nicholas, which I found refreshing.  The only sexual relationship that has any real development is of Nicholas and the general.

There was another character I really liked.  I remembered his name because it was short, Mats.  He is a playwright who through Anna and Nicholas, learns about Shakespeare.  He becomes fascinated by the plays and adapts them to Hwarhath scenarios and moralities.  The first play he adapts is Macbeth. 

The story is told in mostly alternating chapters between an Anna-perspective third-person narration and Nicholas’ first- person journal entries.  The story hangs together fairly well through the narration, although there were a couple time jumps that confused me.  I thought they could have been signified a little more clearly. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  It was a very interesting read.  It wasn’t full of action.  It’s a philosophical discussion under the guise of space opera.  But it was still intriguing.  It was the reverse of the usual story where earthlings are trying to decide if aliens are “human” or “people” versus really smart animals or barbarians.  If you’re looking for a smart take on first contact stories with some deep meaning, this is the book for you.

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