Ah, the omnibus. Otherwise known as a good paperweight.
Almost 1000 pages later, I have reached the other side, and it only took me a few years.
Orthe is a sci-fi duology, featuring Golden Witchbreed, its ten-years-later sequel Ancient Light, and the short story The Crystal Sunlight, the Bright Air (because 950 pages isn’t quite enough reading, obviously).
I am usually a ‘trilogy or less’ type reader, so this would seem to fit the bill. But my god Orthe is a saga. So many characters! And it’s the abandon-all-hope-ye-who-missed-a-few-pages type read, demanding total concentration on the reader’s part, together with a good dose of patience.
I’d usually be the first to say it’s probably not worth it, but in this case, if you like this type of thing, Orthe might be that life-changing book you’ve been searching for.
I read Golden Witchbreed some years ago, and it stuck with me for being strange and moving, even if I didn’t really understand it. Years later, I got round to the sequel, and this time, I feel I understand better (but still not completely).
In Golden Witchbreed Lynne de Lisle Christie, our protagonist, is a young, naïve thing sent on a mission to Carrick V/Orthe, a post-technological world thriving in the ruins of its great and terrible past.
The main strength of this book is that it really is alien. Not just human turned on its head and given a few extra limbs, but actually different to human. The Ortheans who people this newly discovered world are uncompromisingly strange, and I don’t know how Gentle carries it off, but they are still convincing liars and friends, flawed to the bone, and painfully real.
Long story short. Golden Witchbreed is a story about looking to understand, and in doing so losing objectivity in favour of going native. It is an expertly crafted novel, well-written, and one of few sci-fi works I have read that manages to effectively balance world-building with plot and character.
The ten year gap between this novel and its sequel is understandably jarring. The Christie we meet in Ancient Light is a different woman to the one we left. She is older, in some ways wiser, but fraying at the seams, and her second story runs in a much darker vein.
Ancient Light is, I think, more of an acquired taste than its predecessor. There is less wonder in this book, because our protagonist sees less wonder in the world around her. It is nothing if not a sad book, consistently raising hopes, and then dashing them. Raw and powerful, Ancient Light has more weight, and much less optimism.
It is hard to say which of the two is the better book, since they are so distinct, but I rate them equally, albeit in different ways. The top points for both go to their boldness. Gentle leaves few holds barred, and explores, fully, the consequences of her many challenging subplots.
Overall, this is not a series for everyone. Or even most people. There is something undecided and ‘off’ about Orthe. It is a heavy read, and in places hard to follow, but it is a work that fosters thought and feeling. It is, as many books only claim to be, brave and memorable.
I feel that I gained something from reading this ambiguous monster. One day, and I say this with few of even my favourite books, I might even read it again.