Sheri Tepper is an author to give hope to all aspiring writers of mature years, because her first published novel didn't appear until she was in her mid-fifties. However, she hit the ground running and has since authored some thirty SFF novels under her own name plus more than a dozen thrillers under pseudonyms, not to mention shorter works. Nine of her novels have been nominated for awards, one of them (Beauty) winning the Locus Award in 1992. She has become associated with ecological and feminist themes, although this is only obvious in some of her work. She wins my award as the author of my favourite contemporary fantasy series, The Marianne Trilogy (reviewed on this blog on 4 July 2007), a unique and surreal vision of parallel fantastical worlds.
Grass is the first of her Arbai trilogy (somehow I've missed the other two and must get hold of them) and I first read it when it was published in the 1980s. I remember being very impressed at the time, but since I had forgotten the plot I was able to enjoy it all over again.
The story displays her ability to create strange but compelling worlds. It is set in a distant future in which humanity has spread across a large number of star systems, so far finding no signs of other intelligent life except the widespread ruins of the Arbai civilisation, created by an extinct race of humanoid reptiles. The controlling force across human civilisation is a religion, Sanctity, whose unique selling point is to collect genetic data from its followers ready for machines to restore them to a purer life after the expected death of humanity. At the start of the story this appears to be imminent as humanity is suffering a deadly and incurable plague, to which the inhabitants of only one of the settled planets seem to be immune; the world of Grass.
Grass is unique for several reasons. The first is what gave the planet its name; the land surface is almost entirely covered by grasses, in a vast range of different types varying greatly in colour and size depending on the soils and microclimate. The only exceptions are marshy areas, where giant trees grow. Another is that the controlling settlers, a group of aristocrats, have divided the land into vast estancias and forbidden any settlement other than their own mansions and the villages of their servants, with the principal exception of the Commons, a hundred-square-mile upland area cut off from the grasslands by marshy forest. In this crowded space is the interstellar port and all commercial and scientific activities, a culture quite separate from that of the aristocrats. Elsewhere there is also a small settlement of recalcitrant monks despatched to the planet as a punishment, who spend their time excavating the most complete Arbai city ever found.
The story is first seen through the eyes of the aristocrats, collectively called the "bons" because of their practice of indicating their aristocracy by adding this to their names, as in Rowena bon Damfels. They are obsessed with hunting and do little else during the hunting season, which takes place during the summer; winters are so harsh that they are spent in underground warrens. The hunting style is modelled after the ancient British sport of fox hunting, with the hunters on mounts and accompanied by hounds as they ride in pursuit of their prey, which are even known as "foxen". However, their mounts - Hippae - are not horses, their hounds are not dogs and the foxen are not remotely like foxes, and there is something very strange about the entire custom.
Into this world comes the Yrarier family, Rodrigo together with his long-suffering wife Marjorie and reluctant teenage children, covertly sent by Sanctity to discover why the inhabitants seem to be immune to the plague. They have great difficulty in being accepted by the suspicious and xenophobic bons, and find that they need to participate in the hunting to be taken seriously; but this hunting is, literally, like nothing on Earth. Another plot thread concerns some of the monks on Grass, who are making interesting discoveries about the Arbai and why they died out. The various threads are gradually woven together into the climactic conclusion, in which the true nature and history of the native Hippae, hounds and foxen are central.
The author is a great story-teller and has a marvellous ability to take the reader inside the worlds of her imagination. The culture of the bons, the rope-climbing sub-culture of the younger monks (which reminded me of Peake's Gormenghast), and the intense internal struggles within the Yrarier family, are all memorable.