The people who chose my reading for me between 2001 and 2014 only ever sent me Judith Tarr’s historical fantasies, so that’s the genre I associate with her. 2015’s standalone novel, Forgotten Suns, isn’t a historical fantasy at all. Instead it’s a science fantasy that could almost have been written by middle-period Andre Norton1.
Nevermore used to be home to a civilization. Now only nomads call the world home. Five thousand years earlier, something brought Nevermore’s civilization to an abrupt end. Much to the frustration of Aisha’s archaeologist parents, on Nevermore for the first real scientific study of the catastrophe, whatever that something was left no hint as to its nature. It is almost as though the inhabitants of the entire planet packed their bags and left … which would seem to be impossible, because the locals had not yet achieved conventional spaceflight.
Results so far: lots of questions and no answers. Consequence: funding for the expedition will probably dry up. Aisha is faced with leaving Nevermore, the only world she has ever called home. Her solution: borrow a small quantity of explosives and carry out her own one-woman exploration.
Of course, it helps if, unlike Aisha, one reads the instructions on the explosives first. One might avoid discovering the hard way that what seemed like a small amount of explosives was in fact gross overkill.
Aisha survives the experience, but she is disappointed to find that the cave the explosion uncovers is as bare of tangible archaeological evidence as the rest of Nevermore. Or so it seems. In fact, Aisha has woken something long sleeping.
The stranger who later appears in the camp does not look like Nevermore’s nomads, but he appears to be just as native to the planet as they are. Native as of a few millennia ago; he has been preserved in a stasis field, a field disrupted by the explosion. Rama, as he is dubbed by his hosts, is close-mouthed about his past, but the fact that he went into stasis just before the whatever-it-was-that-ended-civilization is suggestive.
Rama books transport off-planet and Aisha decides to travel too, as a stowaway. She hopes to discover something about Rama and his past that will save the expedition funding; she will also skip her impending Psycorps tests, a rite of passage that left her aunt traumatized.
Once again, Aisha’s apparently reasonable plan backfires. The man she is following is a monster, armed with psychic powers even the Psycorps cannot match. He (and Aisha) are headed towards a destiny he has no choice but seek.
I am going to be blunt here: this book really needed to have been vetted by someone scientifically literate, to avoid howlers like “M‑class, yellow, like Earth’s sun” and “It’s reading gravity on the scale of Nevermore, though it’s not near the size or density. Or the orbital speed to make up for either.” Even for a science fantasy, the worldbuilding seemed pretty shaky.
Rama’s overpowering, plot-breaking abilities have ample precedent in science fiction, from Kimball Kinnison to Telzy to Bolt. In fact, there’s not a single criticism of Rama I could not also make of Flinx … and I reviewed one of the Flinx books fairly favourably. I am afraid I was disappointed. Rama never seemed remotely human or appealing. I had hoped that Rama would be at least a little shaken when midway through the book he gets drafted as an ad hoc pied piper, but no such luck. Ah well.
The book is strongest when it focuses on its most human characters: Aisha, who is afraid she and her family will be forced to leave the only planet she knows, is an appealing protagonist. Her aunt Khalida, on leave following a mission that went horribly pear-shaped to the tune of a quarter million dead, is vividly depicted. The two characters are linked, not only by biology, but by the challenges they face. Aisha is afraid of change, and Psycorps tests, precisely because of her aunt’s horrific experiences.
Despite my caveats, I would recommend this book as absorbing. This would be a good time to buy Forgotten Suns, since the author is having some difficulties of late:
Right now I do not know how I’m going to feed the horses for the rest of the month. I have managed to scrape out enough to pay for the last load of hay (if that late check finally gets here), but once it’s eaten, which it will be in about ten days, I don’t know what I’m going to do. The farm will be gone by midsummer unless I find a steady source of sufficient income. I’ve been hustling like a hustling thing but so far with minimal results.
The market does not want either me or the horses. The horses are all old and therefore retired and unsalable, or else would require thousands of dollars’ worth of training and show fees to have any sale value. No one can take them. The market is saturated with unwanted horses and the rescues are overloaded. I am over 60, hearing impaired (ergo, unable to use the phone), and with chronic fatigue syndrome which makes office or minimum-wage work difficult to impossible. And minimum wage would not support the animals, let alone me. All my income streams from backlist books, editing, writing, etc. have shrunk to a trickle or dried up. No one has booked a Camp in over a year.
Forgotten Suns and other Judith Tarr books may be purchased in non-DRMed ebook form at Bookview Cafe.
1: Yeah, I spent more time than I should have checking to see if there is a direct link between Tarr and Norton. They definitely were in the same general SF community and they appeared in at least one anthology together. But if there is a direct connection between Tarr and Norton along the lines of, say, Smith and Norton or McConchie and Norton, I could not find it.
Tarr explains the genesis of this book