1985’s Five-Twelfths of Heaven was Scott’s second published novel after 1984’s The Game Beyond. It is the first volume of the Silence Leigh trilogy. The other volumes are 1986’s Silence in Solitude and 1987’s The Empress of Earth. I enjoyed this back in the 1980s (which is why I picked this particular Scott to review) and I enjoyed rereading it.
(Note: 1985 is almost thirty years ago. Baen Books was a very different brand then, so people who stumble over an old copy of this will not find the book they may expect given Baen Books’ current output.)
By Silence’s era, humanity has reached the stars (thanks to applied Hermetic/neo-Platonic science) and lost the way home to Earth (thanks to war). The Hegemony is the paramount power in the region and as it expands inexorably across the Milky Way, it insists that each newly conquered region adopt the Hegemony’s laws and customs, as empires so often do.
Unfortunately for pilot Silence Leigh, those laws and customs deny women any control over their lives and property. The laws were merely annoying when her beloved grandfather Bodua Leigh was alive to protect her; after Bodua’s death those laws leave Silence dependent on her unreliable, corrupt Uncle Otto and at the mercy of the avaricious master-merchant Tohon Champuy. Champuy can easily afford to pay for Otto’s cooperation in looting all Bodua’s possessions.
A stranger intervenes. Denis Balthazar has a use for a female pilot like Silence and thanks to the Hegemony’s misogynistic ways, female pilots are beyond rare. Given the choice between Champuy, whom she knows all too well, and a stranger who offers her at least a degree of freedom, she opts for the latter. She loses her grandfather’s ship but she keeps her star route books and more importantly, herself.
Although Denis values Silence’s piloting skills, his most urgent need involves regularizing the status of his lover and partner, Julian Chase Mago. While Denis is from Delos and so enjoys a privileged legal status, Chase is from the subjugated world Kesse. As a subject, Chase is subject to onerous Hegemonic regulations, not least of which is a ban on star travel. Chase could gain Delian citizenship by marrying a Delian, but Delian law forbids same-sex marriages. However, the law does allow for polyamorous marriages, both polygynous or polyandrous. If Silence marries the two men, both Silence and Chase will become Delian citizens.
(Why does the woman have to be a pilot? Denis’ ship has space for another pilot but not for passengers.)
It’s pretty clear that Denis and Chase have a lot of secrets that they are not immediately willing to share with Silence. However, they gain her confidence by promising her that they don’t want anything physical from her, just her legal role as a shared bride and her services as a pilot. It also helps that Denis does not insist that she make up her mind right away but rather suggests she make a trip with the two men to assess whether or not they are people with whom she could stand to share cramped quarters in a spaceship for at least a year.
It’s not a bad deal and certainly better than anything Otto or Champuy would offer, so Silence agrees. It’s only after the marriage that she discovers that she has also married into the Wrath-of-God, a collective of heavily-armed freedom fighters/pirates (depending on if you ask pro-or-anti-Hegemony people). All the Hegemony has are grand navies and the most skilled magi money can buy, while the Wrath-of-God has pluck and determination. What mere paramount empire can hope to prevail against a ragtag band imbued with passion and élan?
I draw a curtain over the ensuing carnage.
Now prisoners of the Hegemony, Denis, Chase and Silence buy their lives by agreeing to serve the Hegemony as conscripts. The Hegemony’s reach is longer than its population can support, so it tries not to waste resources like trained pilots and engineers. The Hegemony is also not staffed by idiots so the deal includes geases that should preclude any thought of disloyalty or escape.
It’s only after the chains are clapped on her mind that Silence discovers that among her old star-charts is the secret to reaching Earth. Happily for Silence, Denis, and Chase — and less so for the Hegemony — neither Silence nor the Hegemony grasp the full extent of Silence’s talents.
As I reread older books I am continually forced to acknowledge how unreliable my memory is. I thought this was Scott’s debut novel. It’s actually her second. I thought this was marketed as fantasy — I thought it was a big deal back in 1985 that Baen was dabbling in fantasy — but the spine makes it clear this was solicited as science fiction. At least I remembered the author and publisher correctly.
Even by current American standards1, the Hegemony is a pretty bad place to be a woman. Scott makes that clear on the first page:
The court complex was crowded as it always was, jammed with contentious Secasian natives babbling away in the local variant of the Hegemony’s official coine. Silence Leigh edged her way through the crowd toward the entrance of the Probate Court hall, trying not to draw too much attention to herself. For all that she was decorously veiled, the stark mourning cloth drawn so tight across her face that she could barely stand to breathe the stifling air of the corridors, she had neither man nor homunculus to escort her, and an unaccompanied woman was fair game at any time.
Truth be told, the next passage would not be out of place on a street of even a comparatively civilized nation because frankly, they’re all only comparatively civilized.
Almost as if conjured by the thought, a bearded man jostled against her, trying to see her face beneath the veil. Silence turned slightly, so they met shoulder to shoulder, refusing to be pushed aside.
The man grinned down at her, then was lost in the crowd. Silence felt a surge of pure, screaming fury. In the three weeks since her grandfather had died, stranding her on Secasia until his affairs could be settled, she had had to put up with this harassment almost daily.
This encounter defines the cultural setting nicely. In fact, establishing that Silence is the sort of person who would defy convention in order to become a star pilot also establishes her as someone who might consider an unconventional marriage proposal. In addition, her status as one of handful of female pilots foreshadows that she might be remarkable in other ways.
That said, there are moments where the Hegemony seems oddly humane for a vast misogynistic empire set on crushing the Milky Way. They’re not keen on female pilots but they will use them. Much more surprisingly, they won’t assign married prisoners to different ships, preferring to keep couples and triads together. The first may be driven by the Hegemony’s workforce shortage but given geases, they have no driving reason not to split up pairs and triads. Apparently they are not complete ass-hats.
I believe this novel has ended up on lists of polyamorist novels but I would not place it there, not exactly. It’s true that Silence ends up married to two men but it is a plot point that this is a marriage in name only and that if there is anything romantic going on, it’s between the two men2.
[And now, a note from my editor:
I have this book. The marriage starts out in name only, but all three of them are certainly SLEEPING together in short order. We are not told that there is anything going on save sleeping, but given that Denis and Chase are never described as showing physical affection, I suspect that hot woman-and-two-guys action was also not something the publisher wanted to include. Or perhaps Scott, who is lesbian, may not have wanted to write such sex scenes]
It’s certainly suggestive that Delos allows a wider variety of marriages than most modern nations — surely not all such arrangements are cold-blooded business agreements — but as far as this specific book is concerned, polyamorous relationships (as opposed to poly-business ones) are matters of salacious gossip3, not personal experience.
I may be the first person in the entire history of reviewing ever to say that Scott’s amusing decision to have standard physics apply only near planets and stars reminded me of Petr Beckmann’s Galilean Electrodynamics. Scott’s hermetic magic is a lot more entertaining than any of Beckmann’s fantasies, which is why when I am finished this I will have reviewed two of Scott’s books and not any of Beckmann’s, not even Einstein Plus Two.
Scott had me hooked from the first “The” to the final “victory”. My only regret is that, because I am reading this on my own dime, I can’t afford the time to finish the trilogy4, although of course I own the whole set in first edition. If you somehow missed the Silence Leigh books back in the 1980s, perhaps because you weren’t even born yet5, you can still acquire them from Crossroad Press.
1: As astounding as it may seem in these modern times, there was a time when women’s rights within the US, and in the West generally, were being expanded rather than being inexorably eroded to please misogynistic theocrats and plutocrats. Strange but true!
2: Just to be clear on this point: if there are any steamy romances going on, they don’t seem to involve any of the principal characters.
[Editor’s comment: um, no.]
3: The custom at this time seems to be that it is OK for triads to marry as long they pretend it’s just for legal reasons but in the one other example of a ship-board triad I noticed, also purportedly a business arrangement, people smirked about what they imagined was going on behind closed doors..
4: OK, I was a little disappointed I didn’t find any amusing slips of paper between the pages. I think the previous Scott had money hidden in it.