Epic Science Fiction. It’s not a genre I have heard of before, but it seems to fit here. This book is sweeping. It has depth. Breadth. It’s dark at times, but there is also hope. There is love. And there is, ultimately, an examination of what it means to be human and what truly constitutes a monster. Epic.
The story follows Amber, a woman down on her luck, who in a last ditch effort to make a future for herself and her sister, secures passage for them both on a space expedition to colonize a new planet. She is abrasive and overweight; people don’t like her. But she is pragmatic and fiercely loyal. Her already bad life gets unbelievably worse when her ship goes way, way off course, and crash lands on a mysterious planet after the passengers took a 200+ year nap. The ship and most of the people on board go boom, leaving Amber, her sister, and about 50 other humans stranded in an alien world.
Our unlikely hero is Meoraq, a native to the planet who looks like a giant lizard. He is a warrior among his people and a deeply religious man. When he stumbles onto Amber and her people, he sees it as a sign from God that he is supposed bring them on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And over the course of the story, a meaningful connection grows between him and Amber. They must face serious external threats and work through their own internal ones to find their place in each other’s lives and in the world they share.
There is a reason so many people speak highly of this book. The world-building is really amazing. The author really creates two cultures: the futuristic, awful human world where Amber comes from– and the vastly complicated culture of Meoraq’s people. Both were drawn so clearly, they felt real. Page after page, more of it is uncovered, drawing us further in, layer upon layer. Even more powerful, though, are the characters.
Amber is not an easy woman. Between her big mouth and her bluntness, though, she was so relatable to me. I felt like I could be in her shoes, digging the same ditch she dug for herself among her shipmates. That made it all the more disturbing as her fellow humans mistreated her, and as she faced horror after horror. Then there’s Meoraq. He is honorable in the way of his people, but very different than a traditional hero. While he did and said things that would be unthinkable coming from a human man, for him, they fit. He was… awesome. And the development of his relationship with Amber was just so compelling. I loved that it took time; that we got to see them really learn each other before they became friends. That we got to witness their internal struggle as they began to feel more. That lizard sex could be hot. Who knew?
But part of what really makes the relationship so powerful, is its contrast to the interpersonal behavior among the rest of the characters. Scott, the human “leader” was such an untenable bastard. Nicci, Amber’s sister, was so spoiled and weak. But lest you think that humans are the only monsters here, we get to see that evil is universal with the introduction of some really horrific lizard-people. Corruption and misuse of power are clearly universal failings.
There are some tough things in here, I won’t lie. There is rape. More than one. The hero doesn’t rape the heroine, but THERE IS RAPE, so be warned. It was difficult to read, but being prepared for it by other readers helped. It also helped the way the way the victim is portrayed. She doesn’t despair. She keeps moving forward… through one awful thing after another. But there is a balance of darkness with hope, in the growing love between Amber and Meoraq.
It wasn’t a perfect book. There were some slow going parts, especially before Meoraq and Amber cross paths. Plus, I would have liked to see more shades of gray among the peripheral characters. For instance… did every single human HAVE to be one of the sheep? Couldn’t anyone be redeemed? Or on the lizard side, couldn’t anyone see the disparities in their culture? Did no one see the problems with the misogyny or slavery? (Hint: No.) But this all did highlight what made Meoraq and Amber so special… so different from those around them.
Anyway, the whole book is a journey — both literally and metaphorically. The pinnacle of that is such an awesome surprise… and it turns Meoraq’s whole word upside down. It was so worth it. All of it.
The book is long –and it may be too dark for some readers– but in the end, I thought it was very, very good.