Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
This is a vivid, well-written tale that moves along at an entertaining pace. It contains fascinating detail and description of a displaced human culture on an alien planet, all the way down to the odour of the street cooking, the texture of fabrics used and the colours in which people dress. The story is told in the first person to provide both a running narrative of events and the understanding of the same as seen and experienced by the hero, Ashamet.
Consider the desert kingdom of the Kadduchi intent on becoming an empire with its own elevated rituals to legitimise ideas of a divine dominion. Distant memories of an ancient, higher technology is hinted at but not fully developed, no doubt to provide linkages on which sequels are to be secured. The king of this land has but one child, a son; indulged, cynical and thoroughly spoiled, yet with a strange confidence in his right to command. This is Ashamet, named after a desert whirlwind who lays his story out before us in a full and frank manner.
As the story opens Ashamet is to be married to Taniset of the Sidassi for political reasons. This causes misgivings on his part as in Kadduchi society sexual pleasure is taken with other men and youths, whilst women are used for reproductive purposes only. Consequently homoerotic sequences are recounted in the story from time to time, sometimes in both detail and at length. Yet once married, Ashamet preens himself that Taniset was excited by his successful exertions at begetting an heir, but remains puzzled as to why his young wife enjoys his attention so much. He is shocked to discover that some Sidassi men have a preference for taking their sexual pleasure with women. It would seem in this very masculine dominated society that women are forbidden from enjoying their own sexuality.
This desert kingdom has a slave economy in which the upper classes are free to indulge their pleasures as much as the merchant class set out to pleasure the aristocracy to secure money making indulgences. Thus status is of the essence and perceived slights can prove fatal. The provision of body slaves among the aristocracy specifically for the exercise of their predominantly homosexual interests is cause for hypocrisy in that such slaves are deemed the lowest of the low and not to be seen in public. Ashamet sets out to break this taboo.
As a wedding gift Sheshmann, a collector of rarities, presents Ashamet with a twenty year old male slave called Keril who is both remarkably beautiful and quite innocent of masculine lust. At first Ashamet is irritated by Keril’s ignorance but as their relationship develops he becomes fascinated by the various attributes his new body slave displays; such as healing, which he initially puts down to the slave being raised within some unknown religious sect. As Ashamet’s love for Keril grows he comes to see the slave as a skilled initiate in arcane knowledge from the far north.
At around the same time Ashamet discovers that he is gradually acquiring the distinct physical mark of the En-Syn on his upper sword arm, proof that the gods favour him and his bloodline. This mark is usually supervised by the high priests in preparation for the Synia, the mark of kingship. Only with Ashamet it appears to be happening as a natural process, proof to anyone that he was marked for greatness. Then Ashamet gradually becomes aware that someone is trying to kill him.
The plot then inexorably moves forward to an exciting denouement which will both satisfy military buffs whilst delighting sword and sorcery fans. The sorcery embodies elements of human mutation and the practice of lost technology.
What holds the entire story together is the convincing description of this bizarre culture. There are familiar themes expressed but in an inverted manner which are then thoroughly explained. It is this difference that entertains the reader. It is quite clear this is a human society behaving badly on an alien planet where the horses are unicorns and lions a form of large lizard. Throughout the tale the reader is treated respectfully with simple titbits of incidental information that make it very clear that there can be no parallels whatsoever with any historical culture on Earth, although someone clearly did not tell the graphics department.