Book review: Grass, by Sheri S Tepper

30 12 2016

Sheri S Tepper was an American speculative fiction writer, winner of the Locus and World Fantasy awards, and one of the many notable voices silenced this year: she died on 22nd October.

grass

Grass (1989) is the first volume of Tepper’s ‘Arbai’ trilogy. It sees Lady Marjorie Westriding Yrarier, dutiful wife of the philandering and headstrong Rigo Yrarier, travel with her family (and a sizeable equine retinue) to the planet Grass, on a diplomatic mission to uncover the secret of the Grassian colonists’ apparent resistance to the lethal plague slowly wreaking tragedy elsewhere across human space. But though Grass is, as its name suggests, a pastoral planet, neither the colony’s antiquated nobles-and-commoners social structure nor the planet’s mysterious native ecology can be viewed as friendly: there are secrets here, deep, dark, and deadly. Nobody from offworld understands the dangers.

Rigo is the ambassador, dispatched to Grass through an act of nepotism by the dying Hierarch; Marjorie is included in the mission purely as ornament. But if she is given no official function, she will soon find one for herself as an information-gatherer, first for her husband and then, in impatience and frustration at his unwillingness or inability to perceive the traps embedded in Grassian society, to satisfy her own need for knowledge.

Grass’s noble families—its bons—live to participate in a highly-ritualised, native-fauna variant of foxhunting, in which horse-analogues—the lethally spiky and carnivorous Hippae—are ridden, and accompanied by creatures called ‘hounds’ but bearing little similarity to terrestrial canines, in pursuit of large arboreal scavengers known as ‘foxen’. The Hunt, it’s soon apparent, is a hazardous pastime, a compulsive, addictive pastime, sometimes a terminal pastime, and not just for the foxen. When Dimity bon Damfel goes missing during a hunt, it’s as though her name has been erased from history, and Marjorie finds the noble families’ reaction to her disappearance more concerning than her absence itself. It’s in seeking to uncover the truth behind the bon families’ cavalier attitude to these disappearances (for Dimity is only the latest of many) that Marjorie learns the true secrets which the planet’s inhabitants wish to keep concealed.

Tepper’s setting is detailed and multilayered, her cast of characters is broad and clearly-drawn, each with his or her own agenda. Perhaps because of this, the book is rather slow to get started; or perhaps a better description would be that, like a horse following an oft-travelled route, the story knows where it needs to get to, and knows that the most effective trail to its destination is not the most direct, nor the fastest. (Or perhaps I just wanted to work a horse simile into the review, because the equestrian angle is such a significant part of the book.) Large parts of the first half of the text are so sedate (and yet emotionally charged and insightful of character) that (save for the furniture and the exotic fauna) they might not be out of place in a book by, say, Austen, though this is probably more a matter of mood than of the language employed. The activity heats up in the book’s second half, but the prose remains reflective, thoughtful, often analytical even through the most tense and busy passages. And I even found myself appreciating the book’s more spiritual speculations, which thankfully seemed never to get too preachy.

I started the book thinking that it might be hard SF, and there’s certainly an element of solidly scientific speculation to the storyline; but the plot’s repeated recourse to telepathy was, for me, a deal-breaker on that score. This is, of course, merely a matter of classification, not of judgement. I enjoyed the story, and the setting of Grass is quite immersive and intriguing, though I do wish it had included a map.

I’d recommend the book to devotees of Ursula K Le Guin’s SF: there’s the same sense of detailed societal exploration and something of the same sense of character.

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