Friday 24 August 2012
Plague of Angels, by Sheri Tepper
Sheri Tepper has long been one of my favourite authors. I still recall the impact her first novel, The True Game, had on me in the 1980s - it was the first of a truly original fantasy series, and an indicator of what was to come. Since then, I have read many of her stories and re-read a couple of them which are reviewed on this blog; The Marianne Trilogy and Grass. These two illustrate her range, in that the first is a surreal present-day fantasy while the second is science fiction set in the far future. Most commonly what she writes has a mixture of SF and fantasy elements, often including some social commentary, and that is true of Plague of Angels, published in 1993, which I had not previously read.
This is an awkward book to review in that it starts out appearing to be a pure fantasy but as the plot develops and the reader gradually understands what is going on, it becomes more and more science fictional (although fantasy elements remain strong to the end). In consequence, it is difficult to give a comprehensive review without spoilers, but I will try to avoid this by only giving a brief and general summary of the plot.
Plague of Angels concerns two people, a young man and a girl, who grow up apart in what appears to be a largely rural medieval-type fantasy world except for some strange elements, some of them very modern. It is a quest story, a romance and a deadly mystery, all wrapped up in a journey which gives the author the opportunity to describe a variety of different settings and situations. Tepper is sometimes dismissed as a "feminist author" as she usually features strong female characters and her plots often contain elements which, implicitly or explicitly, criticise male-dominated societies. This is true of PoA, as it contains some painfully convincing descriptions of the adolescent attitudes of the male gangs which dominate life in the few cities, and her "ideal society", in a town described later in the book, is one of complete equality. However, there are strong and positive male as well as female roles and the great villain of the story is a woman, so I wouldn't say that the novel is unbalanced by this - it certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment of the tale.
In a couple of places in the story there is an interesting reflection of the ideas in Vance's The Languages of Pao, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. Namely, that the languages people speak affect their attitudes to life. In this case, it isn't different languages so much as the way they speak a common language. To quote one of the characters, concerning the limited and brutal vocabulary of the urban gangs:
"Like apes, Abasio. No oral tradition, rejecting literacy as unmanly. It's a decadent tongue, Abasio, an impoverished tongue. As vocabulary is reduced, so are the number of feelings you can express, the number of events you can describe, the number of things you can identify! Not only understanding is limited, but also experience. Man grows by language. Whenever he limits language, he retrogresses."
Conversely, later in the book Tepper describes what can only be regarded as social engineering through language similar to Pao, by changing names and deleting words which have harmful associations.
Having said all this, I don't want to give the impression that the novel is some sort of dull social tract. Above all, Tepper is a great storyteller and this tale effortlessly carries the reader along, with characters who are credible and sympathetic. She has a tendency to whimsical quirkiness which comes out in such ways as talking animals (for which there is a perfectly acceptable science-fictional justification, in a typical Tepper mix of the genres). There are revelations, twists and turns, right to the end of the book, to keep the reader engaged and entertained. While this isn't my favourite by this author, I enjoyed the ride. So although the story is complete in itself I may look up her other book with the same setting, The Waters Rising, which only appeared in 2010.