Combining a world of both depth and breadth with a range of plausible characters, Webster Buxton delivers a novel with dilemmas and personalities every bit as complex as real life without limiting herself to the merely realistic.
Mariposan society is built on mono-gendered tribes; each boy joins his father’s tribe and each girl joins her mother’s. With justice only available between tribes, any child not claimed by the appropriate parent has no rights. After being found abandoned in the marketplace with no tribal identification, Hob has grown up a slave. Managing to escape from life of sexual abuse, he is rescued from the wilderness by a woman who sees him as a man not an object. But, with his owner determined to recover his property and his past catching up with him, Hob might have to abandon the only real relationship he ever found.
Webster Buxton’s world-building is, as with previous books, skilful. The growth of complex interlocking tribal influence and duties out of criminal gangs and terrorist cells transported to Mariposa by a technologically advanced civilisation of planets, to the varied levels of technology created by the availability of technologies when the planet was colonised, the planet’s society is complex yet plausible.
The idea of tribes being a single gender is similarly both engaging and well realised. One especially interesting nuance is that – while the greater certainty over a child’s mother vastly influences the balance of male to female slaves – the inherent gender bias in tasks has not produced a sexist society: apart from certain jobs splitting along tribal lines, people are treated equally.
Unfortunately, not all the attempts to show a society built from the necessary fusion of mixed groups are successful. The majority of cursing and swearing uses the names of gods from several different classical pantheons, unvaried from their current spelling. While this would make the book more accessible to those who prefer that Christian terms not be used as expletives, it does seem somewhat unrealistic: in place of the growth of a new society from a narrow instance of one with interplanetary travel, the use of several classical pantheons requires both that the parent society regressed back to using those names and that they have remained unchanged while the rest of Mariposan society evolved.
Hob is inherently decent yet desperate to escape, making it easy both for the reader to empathise with him and accept when he takes the path of greater drama.
Unfortunately, while for the most part the supporting cast are well realised, there are a few graceless reveals. The discovery that Gareth has a special skill, without any prior hints he might or even that the skill exists, at the exact moment that it hugely influences the plot is particularly damaging to suspension of belief.
Potentially the most divisive area of this novel is that of sexual abuse: Hob has spent most of his life as a sex slave. While Webster Buxton treads a middle ground between mentioning it and moving on, and making both the acts perpetrated against him and their psychological impact the major narrative, the topic is so charged that any but the most polarised representation risks appearing overly graphic for some readers while seeming to gloss over the subject for others.
However, this is in no way a salacious portrayal. Whether or not a reader is comfortable with the level of detail, they are left in no doubt that Hob was a victim of sustained cruelty.
Overall I enjoyed this novel greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking a science-fiction set in a rich world.
I received a free copy from Literopolis without obligation.