Rather surprisingly, I haven't read anything by Nancy Kress before - not even Beggars in Spain, though I did pick it up a while back. Somehow, her themes have just never sparked my interest. When I saw the chance to read this, I thought I should finally give her a try. This book hasn't really changed my mind, though at least it's based on more information.
This is the second book in a series, and while Kress initially doesn't provide an adequate recapitulation, by the middle of the book we've gotten most of the details - except for one key plot point about immunity, which never really made sense to me. Kress raises interesting issues of culture shock, adaptation, and justice. She uses multiple viewpoints to present each perspective in what I assume she means to be a fair light. It didn't really work for me.
Even allowing for different characters' viewpoints, I had trouble with the casual gender stereotyping that is not presented as individual views, but more often as general truths - that girls are like this, men are inherently violent, or that mothers have special powers of caring (this last comes up a lot). For one thing, some of these views are not a particularly good fit to the matrilineal culture described. The ones that are (the special role of mothers) are more often expressed by the outsiders. The result is that many of the characters come across either as bigoted or two dimensional.
The worldbuilding shows some of the same flaws. The world is implied to be a kind of peaceful paradise, but animal experimentation seems to fit right into the local worldview. Perhaps my views of peace and paradise are different that Kress'. The story is built around a conflict between Terran militarization and peaceful natives. I use 'natives' deliberately, because there's a very colonial feel to the narrative. While to some extent critical of military arrogance, most locals seem to fall in line with it pretty quickly, seemingly because of greater Terran wisdom - which I never saw much sign of. The takeaway for me was that 'Sure, that really over the top militarization is bad stuff, but at heart a good looking soldier with a gun is what you need.'
The prose, happily is largely good, as is the pacing and the structure. Kress plays fast and loose with some of the handwaving - duration of travel seems to be a very flexible issue, but by and large it was the ideology I had trouble with - particularly the ending, which I just couldn't swallow. Even on a low-tech frontier world, for example, I didn't buy that deliberate killing (for the greater good) would be accepted quite so easily - or that a world with a complex, calm, female led culture would suddenly decide that what it really needs is a an ex-soldier.
If you want good writing and feel comfortable with colonial ideologies, this book may be for you. If you're a soft-hearted, justice seeking pacifist that finds that sort of thing troubling, like me, you may want to skip this. Sadly, even if I felt I could overlook it for the sake of the writing, the next book promises to double down on it. That's just not something I want to read.
I received a free copy of this
book in exchange for an honest review.