Nicola Griffith has a very descriptive way of writing. This story, set on the planet JEEP, tells of a virus that kills the men and almost all the women, leaving a female socieity. Anthropologist Marghe Taishan wants to discover the society evolved and discovers that she too is changing. I enjoyed seeing a female culture that wasn't glorified or had all the problems solved. There were the good individuals, the bad individuals and all the mix inbetween and everyone, the natives and the company employes and forces are on parallel journeys of self-exploration. Griffith makes a very real society; her description puts you in the middle of it, feeling it, tasting it.
Damn this is a good book.
It's a first novel, and it has some of the weaknesses I associate with first novels: it jumps through time a lot, and those jumps aren't always telegraphed adequately; some of the descriptions, while each individually quite beautiful, ended up feeling repetitive when taken as a whole. But most impressively, it already displays a great deal of the maturity and style that I loved in Slow River. Even in this first novel, Griffith's voice is assured, her characters are well-drawn, and her themes are delicately presented yet rigorously worked out.
Griffith's style is quietly exquisite, understatedly lyrical (in contrast to Catherynne M. Valente's muscular lyricism or Patricia A. McKillip's ornate lyricism or Peter S. Beagle's cooly intellectual lyricism)(and what is with my favorite authors and all their middle initials?) in ways that seem all the more surprising because this is a science fiction novel rather than a fantasy novel. This is Griffith's description of Marghe's landing on GP:
"The doors cracked open and leaked in light like pale grapefruit squeezings, making the artificial illumination in the gig seem suddenly thick and dim.
Wind swept dark tatters across a sky rippling with cloud like a well-muscled torso, bringing with it the smell of dust and grass and a sweetness she could not identify. . . She sniffed, trying to equate the spicy sweet smell on the wind to something she knew: nutmeg, sun on beetle wings, the wild smell of heather."
Okay, so maybe that passage wasn't so understated. I delight in that sort of passage in fantasy novels, where I expect magic; I delighted in it in Griffith's Slow River, which is SF but in the more "realist" vein, practically Mundane SF. Here, in this near-planetary romance, it took me aback as it should not have, and I am grateful to Griffith for reminding me that there can be so much beauty in the alien.
Part of the reason Jeep is so beautiful (in a stark fashion) is that we see it mostly through Marghe's perspective, and Marghe is a woman deeply attuned to both the world around her and to her own body. She looks outward and inward, and Griffith paints that dual focus with an incredible eye to detail that made the book startlingly visceral. I have been thinking lately about (female) SFF characters' relationships with their bodies, and the way that Marghe is so firmly sited within hers made the beatings, the starvation, and the sex come alive on the page. (Also it really sends the message: Jeep's a tough place!) The way that that character trait completely informs the way Marghe reacts to and advances the plot is just another sign of Griffith's immense skill as a storyteller.
But the thing I am most struck by is how perfectly the jacket description captures this book -- it is a book all about change. It's about characters changing, and it's about societies changing, and it's about the way those changes amplify or counteract each other, and then it's about everything changing again. It's not a book for people who like tight plots where every question raised is answered by the finale -- the finale just raises more questions about the future of the characters and the world. Instead it's a book for people who like history, who like to explore the hidden ways the past shapes the present and who are drawn to those turning points where the smallest decisions by individuals have the power to dramatically alter the fates of whole societies.
This is a marvelous novel, with three-dimensional characters and great use of language.
Don't let the fact that it takes place on an all-woman world prejudice you against (or for) this book. The lack of men isn't the focus and the women are as varied as any dual-gender population can be!
I'm not sure if it was the author's intention but for me, the story was really about the search for one's authentic self. I'm reaching an age (63 this year) where I'm like Marghe and Danner -- journeying into a new and strange world, wondering who I really am, searching for my true name, and nature. It was a delight to follow Marghe, Danner and the others as they found their place.