Once an author has reached thirty-five published novels readers have usually decided whether they want to read the next one. Sheri Tepper has picked up an entourage in the years she has been producing fiction. In some ways, this book is also her swan song. Many of the characters have appeared in earlier works and this one brings some of them together.
Abasio, who first features in A Plague of Angels, and Xulai, who he meets in Waters Rising, are travelling across a, largely deserted, Earth. The scientists of Tingawa have discovered that the oceans will continue to rise until the whole planet is covered. They have made genetic adaptations that mean that humans will be able to survive, but as water dwellers. Abasio and Xulai’s twin children are the first of the new generation and the purpose of their journey is to show the babies the children and persuade young people to travel to the places where they can be changed so they, too, can have sea-children. In one village, a boy, Willum, is reluctantly added to their company. Like many boys, he has never learned how to listen. Willum is the wild card in the novel.
In another valley, Lillis long ago set up house with Joseph. All except the last of her children are taken away when young to be raised elsewhere. The last, Trudis, is not sufficiently intelligent but it is to her that Needly is born. She is one of six children that result from a visit to the valley of a silver-haired man while the village men are away hunting. When her Grandmother is killed, Needly heads out away from the valley where women are treated as tools to satisfy men’s needs. She meets up with Willum and a griffin, which she names Sun-wings. The griffin decides that Abasio and Xulai must arrange for her and her child to be changed to live in the sea when the time comes and to this end, kidnaps Willum and Needly.
Much later in the novel, an alien being calling itself Fixit arrives along with three characters from Tepper’s earlier books. Jinian Farseer, Mavin Manyshaped and Silkhands the healer return from Lom, part of a distant planet that humans colonized to help solve some of Earth’s problems.
Although it is good to be able to make the connections in a cycle of novels, it is not always satisfactory and here some of the solutions seem forced. The whole volume is unwieldy and could have done with some judicial pruning. Like many books that contain a journey, there is much that is merely moving from one place to another with some information repeated. The best sections are those with Needly and the griffins where the pace has excitement and a genuine sense of peril. It is almost as if Tepper had a lot of ideas that she wanted to use up and put them all here. This is not her best book.