Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This novella, at 198 pages, is a satisfying story that packs a surprising amount of worldbuilding and characterization. It tackles issues of colonization, of stories that tell the truth even though they are not actually factual, and the simultaneous opposition and synergy of science and belief. There is not religion, precisely, in this book, but there are opposing perceptions of the same events, one a fantasy point of view and one science-fictional, that break down the barriers between them and come to agreement at the end.
The story is told through two characters: Lynesse Fourth Daughter, the mocked and overlooked youngest child of her family who climbs to the Elder Tower to beg help from Nyrgoth Elder, the wizard who gave her great-grandmother a promise generations ago. If anything invades the land, come to him for help. She has heard rumors of a demon in the Ordwood, "a demon who steals minds, who the strongest cannot face with a blade," whom her mother, the Queen of Lannesite, is going to ignore because it does not matter to her what happens to the northern provinces. But Lynesse thinks something should be done, and so she goes to ask the sorcerer Nyrgoth to honor his ancient promise.
This is all typical enough fantasy. But then we get chapters from the POV of Nyrgoth, or Nyr Illim Tevitch, only to discover he is not a wizard at all: he is "anthropologist second class of Earth's Explorer Corps, centuries old and light years from home," watching over a colony planet that has been abandoned by the Corps and forgotten its origins. He knows, of course, that his so-called "magic" is simply technology, and at first he refuses to help Lynesse. But she so reminds him of her great-grandmother, Astresse Regent and a woman he once loved, that he agrees to go with her and her companion Esha. And so their quest to find the "demon" begins. This is very much not the typical fantasy demon. Instead, it is a Lovecraftian alien incursion on this world, fungal-based and very very creepy (some body horror is involved, if you're sensitive to that sort of thing), that requires both Nyrgoth's technology and Lynesse's heart and courage to defeat it.
Along the way, there is some very good characterization, particularly of Nyr. At the beginning, he looks down on the people of the planet, even calling them "barbarians," viewing them as nothing more than the fallen descendants of the original colonists. The oath he once swore to the Corps requires him to observe and make reports and not interfere in the society, an oath he questions more and more as the story goes on. For her part, Lynesse gains the strength to throw off the negative view her family has of her. At the end, after the extradimensional "demon" is defeated, Nyr admits to himself that he is no longer an anthropologist--"I am nothing but a scientist of sufficiently advanced technology, which is to say a magician"--this planet is not a working outpost, and more than likely the Explorer Corps are never returning.
"I was thinking I might come to court with you," I say idly to Lyn. Live a life amongst her people, tell stories that seem one way for me, but which my listeners will forever hear in some other way denied me. Be the court magician of Lannesite. And grow old, I do not say. And, at last, give up my absurdly attenuated existence, I also omit. But first, I will have lived.
In Lyn's eyes I see a spark. Not for me, Nyr Illim Tevitch, but for a world where there are sorcerers and monsters and wonders, and where courage and resolve can solve problems that intrigue and bookkeeping cannot. The last age of magic, perhaps.
This is a quiet, thoughtful, intricate sort of story. The author has written galaxy-spanning space opera with very high stakes, and this is definitely not that. There is a lot of deft background layering to the setting, and the anthropological angle would be interesting to delve into if the author cared to revisit this world again. But that wouldn't be necessary, as this brief glimpse is a satisfying tale all on its own.
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