Forgotten Suns by Judith Tarr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was my first experience with Judith Tarr, and I'm not sure if I should have started elsewhere to get the feel for her writing, but this was a pretty great book anyway. My main problem (and this could be the fact that I'm struggling with The Dumb since getting pregnant) was that I had a really hard time figuring out some of what was happening politics-wise, and with the different factions that were in play, and even with Rama and his motivations. I'm not sure if they were meant to be murky or if I just was not getting it. I have a feeling it was my issue, because the rest of this book was pretty fun.
Quite a bit of adventure awaits the reader and we dive right in from the very first scene. All Aisha wants to do is explore a cave, it's not her fault she used too much explosive and blew it up, right? But she SAW something down there, just before everything caved in, she's sure of it. And of course being grounded has never stopped a teenager from doing something interesting. When she goes back to the cave to explore with her little brother, she's disappointed by the fact that it's empty and what she saw was gone. She's just telling herself that she was seeing things, when she finds a man outside who isn't exactly human - Rama.
Rama, the name he takes but which is not his real name, is dangerous and just like a tidal wave. He sweeps Aisha and her aunt into a massive cross-universe adventure in which they attract the unwanted attention of pretty much every military group in the system. Rama just wants to find his people, who disappeared 5000 years before. Aisha wants to help him, and her aunt Khalida can't seem to stay away from whatever it is they get themselves into.
The success or failure of all of their endeavors centers heavily around what they call "Psi," which isn't exactly magic but is how some of the characters attempt to understand it. Psi-masters are very powerful and can do a lot with their powers, such as manipulate the "worldweb," control ships, change their surroundings, get into other people's heads, feel what could happen in the future, etc. Aisha has this power but doesn't want it, and Rama is from the start a beacon to her because of his own tremendous power. He shields her, helps her, and in a way teaches her how to use it. But even by the end of the book she's still a novice and needs to be trained, which shows that it's not a question of simply having the talent, but knowing how to use it. Science and "magic" are directly related and linked in this book, which I thought was a really interesting way of going about it.
I also loved the incorporation of ethnicity - even though it wasn't the *point* of the book, the fact that the main characters were not white *and it was pointed out as such* made it very interesting. Aisha and her family are from Egypt, and they have darker skin. But even they are shocked by the sheer blackness of Rama, who they assume has been genetically modified to be so dark. His skin is described pretty much as an inorganic black, which surprises everyone he comes into contact with. Personally, I enjoyed picturing how alien that might look (because he's not strictly human really) to someone like me, who is white, and also to someone who has darker skin. But while skin color was a feature of the characters, the universe seems to have accepted just about every skin color anyway, so it ended up just being a curiosity, or an observation, once they set out on their journey. After a while, it didn't get recognized or commented on anymore. But as a reader, I did not forget. I loved it.
The only other thing I really took issue with, and it's not that I had a big problem with it but it just seemed referential, was with the ship that Rama and Aisha pirate. (view spoiler)[At one point, they come upon a ship that is crying out to them for help, and it turns out to be a living ship with people inside who have chained it up and are hurting it to get it to do what they want. They are studying it and experimenting on it, and it is essentially in a ton of pain. Rama comes on board and frees it, and simply asks it to do things and it obliges. The ship itself I am picturing as a whale-like object because that's sort of how it's described by Aisha as she experiences it flying through space. For me, as I was reading the initial take-over of the ship by Rama and Aisha, all I could think about was the episode of Doctor Who when Eleven and Amy end up on board a starwhale that the English have captured and are torturing to keep it going on its journey. When The Doctor sets it free, the whale is perfectly happy to help them because it wants to help the children. All they have to do is ask it. I never quite got that image out of my head while reading this. I don't know if Doctor Who even took that from somewhere else because that's just the first place I'd ever seen something like it. But it was very referential and while interesting, I found it distracting. Although considering how much of the plot of the rest of the book depended on a living ship helping them, I really have no idea how else she could have done this. So I wasn't angry or super bothered about it, but I never got rid of that reference while reading. (hide spoiler)]
This is a really good book and I am only knocking it down one star because I had the difficulties following some of the plot. The blend of science fiction and fantasy (something that is very difficult to do and not a ton of authors can manage it) was very smooth and interesting, and gave me a new way of seeing the two genres.
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