by Liz Williams
Review by Rafe Conn
Tor Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1405041250
Date: 17 February, 2006 List Price £10.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Liz Williams' new novel Darkland opens with our heroine, Vali Hallsdottir, on an assassination mission to the planet Nhem. Despite the disappearance of her accomplice she completes her assignment and returns to her world of Muspell where she rejoins her mentor, has a bath, and moves on to her next mission.
It seems that her absent accomplice was actually an old lover/teacher/mage whom she did not recognize, a chap by the name of Frey, a Vitki - something akin to a Sith Lord, self-interested, cruel and deadly in a fight. Frey had left Vali in the clutches of a terrible beast for obscure reasons of his own, having first put her in his thrall. Sometime later he dons a disguise and joins her on the mission that opens the book.
The Vitki, from the Darkland of the title, also reside on the planet Muspell. Vali is an agent of the Skald, a kind of feminist freedom fighters organisation. Abused by her brother as a child, she is a mass of psychoses, but if the road to enlightenment involves killing people then Vali is enroute to divinity. It may take some time however because this is the first in a series.
There are many different creatures in Darkland - talking seals, things very like pterodactyls, and lots of large, many toothed furry beasts. Using an ability called the seith Vali can commune with her surroundings, and in order to survive her various ordeals and complete herself it is her seith that must develop.
A contemporary adage holds that gender equality has merely allowed women to be as miserable and unfulfilled as men are. The heroine of Darkland is single, depressed and has doubts about her job. This novel may be set far in the future, but Vali's emotional geography places her by any old water cooler of today.
The main sub-plot of the novel deals with a young man, Ruan, on a technologically primitive world, Mondhile. Ruan is essentially abducted by a beautiful, leather-clad femme-fatale. It was this encounter that forced me to recognise the sado-masochistic leitmotif that runs throughout Darkland - Vali kills her mark with sex, Ruan is controlled by dirty and violent sex, and periodically Ruan's clan revert to a lower form of civilization resulting in sex and death. Normally a little fornication in my reading matter is welcome enough, but there's something missing here from the sex that is also missing from the entire book...humour.
Not one joke. And the only smiles are wry or ironic. Now I don't insist on a laugh a minute in my reading, but not one single measly upward mouth curl in 308 pages shows, in my opinion, an inability to construct rounded and believable characters. Does nobody laugh in the forty-second (or whenever) century?
In tone, Darkland reminded me of E.E. "Doc" Smith or perhaps Heinlein - a nerdy book for the bedroom. The main difference here being that this bedroom belongs to a miserable girl instead of a miserable boy. Those nerdy "Boy's Own" SF classics never did me any harm! Indeed I got a lot of satisfaction and pleasure from them. I'm sure that a generation of girls will glean similar comfort from this offering.