HIDDEN SUN by Jaine Fenn
Angry Robot, 445 page p/b, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
When a Science Fiction writer has built a reputation in the genre, they are sometimes reluctant to switch to another. The answer is to give the society on an exo-planet. Fantasy overtones. One approach is the ‘lost colony’ scenario. Often the inhabitants are unaware, after the various problems of initial survival, that they did not evolve on this world. This allows for lost histories, backward steps in technology or the development of special powers. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels are a good example with the advent of Thread from a wandering planet setting civilisation back. Mechanisation has been lost but to compensate they have genetically engineered dragons. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels are another example with some of the inhabitants developing mental powers that are effectively magic.
Jaine Fenn’s world has all the qualities of a lost colony. The populace is divided into two fragments. The shadowkin, the majority, live in areas that are under vast discs of shadow. No-one knows how they work or what causes them but they protect animals, people and crops from the fierceness of the sun. Venturing outside the shadow during daylight is certain death. There, plants and animals are alien and dangerous. The skykin were human. They are hosts to a symbiote that changes them and allows them to survive in the areas outside the shadows. Their children are born human and are raised in homes within the Shadowlands. Only later are they given their symbiotes. Dej is one of these children but the symbiote she is given doesn’t change her completely and she is taken in by the Clanless who survive by their wits.
Rhia is very much, Dej’s opposite. She is the daughter of a noble house in the Shadowland of Shen. She has the luxury to pursue her own interests, which are mostly astronomy. She belongs to a select group known as Enquirers. The technical level is late 16th Century, the planet is believed to be the centre of the universe with the sun and moons orbiting it. Like Galileo, Rhia has acquired a telescope which will cause her to rethink knowledge, but she cannot do this under the shadow. As planets align, so do events.
Rhia’s brother, Etyan, has fled Shen to a neighbouring Shadowland, Zekt, and in his absence has been accused of murder. The ruling Duke of Shen and Rhia’s cousin, is sending a small detachment of troops to fetch Etyan back. Although she knows she will be refused permission to go with them, Rhia is determined to travel to Zekt, believing that she will be able to persuade Etyan to return voluntarily.
This journey is a device to show the differences between the two regions and to allow the reader to understand the way this planet works. In the hands of some writers this would be clumsy but Fenn is an accomplished story-teller and the transition is skillfully done. Rhia has some knowledge of what she is likely to endure and encounter on the way but finds that reality is somewhat different. She is brave, resourceful and willing to learn.
The other side of the society is told from Dej’s point of view, and like Rhia she has to follow a steep learning curve.
The different Shadowlands have evolved different societies and are linked mainly by trade. At one time Rhia had been marked as a bride for the ruler of Zekt. Knowing she would be forbidden to continue with her intellectual studies – women don’t come off well in this society – she had deliberately scarred her face to render herself unacceptable as a bride. This forms part of the undercurrent of politics that touches the actions of many of the characters. Layered onto this is the ambitions of Sadakh, high priest of Zekt. If there is a villain in this piece, it is him. He is motivated by a desire to achieve longevity. Thus he is prepared to experiment on his acolytes, one of whom, for a short time, is Etyan.
In any novel, to tell a good story, there has to be a degree of coincidence with all the relevant factors coming together at the right time. Here it feels that each strand is a culmination of events that lead up to the point where they intersect. Above all, the story allows the reader to explore a truly alien planet. Excellent.