Right. Not going to beat around the bush with this one - this book was brilliant. It takes all those other books I've been reading and puts them to shame.
Not only does it have great characters, thought-provoking settings, interesting plot, tension and all that - it mananges it with a mere 315 pages! Choke on that Miéville and Stephenson.
How to describe the plot? Hmmm...I think you may need to read the Wikipedia entry on that one. Does it pass the test. Yes it does. Without even trying. 3 of the main characters are women and they're all different and pretty awesome. They've got their strengths and weakeness but they're whole people.
There were a couple 'ummmm' moments though, which I wasn't quite sure of.
"Can't remember her name. Her? Couldn't have been; I'd never serve under a fem captain." P. 40
This was one of the lead characters, Pham, talking about his past. At this point he may have been entirely been manipulated by the 'Old One' (a person/species that had transcended - again, see plot) and maybe it was all a cover. Or maybe he was just a douche. This is the only time this happens though.
Ravna, one of the female lead characters also dissects his character immediately after (which I think gives borderline bonus points).
"The fellow had been born in a male-dominated culture, virtually the opposite of the matriarchy that all Beyonder humanity descended from." P. 40.
The other 'ummm' was around rape. Well. Sort of. The Tines, they're group minds with packs of 3-8 (or more) members, when they mingle - they kind of lose control of their higher faculties. This is when I think what they call rape happens. So what does that mean? I dunno. It's never an active, conscious thing but it's referenced a few times.
Flenser/Tyrathect - a hybrid Tine pack, which was fighting to control their consciousness, referenced this:
"The Memories of torment inflicted suddenly seemed sweet. Sleep-time sex should sooth; with her it was a battle. She awoke sore and cut, as if she'd been fighting a rapist. If the two ever broke free, if she every awoke a 'he...' It would take only a few seconds for the two to denounce the masquerade, only a little longer to kill the three and put the Flenser members aboard a more manageable pack." P.71
So this was a bit weird but it never actually happened, just sort of referenced. So there you go. The weird bits.
What is interesting about the packs though is the somewhat fluidity of gender. Both Flenser/Tyrathect are referenced as switching genders (so I guess more female than male members). So Flenser goes from 'he' to Tyrathect (she) and back to Flenser (he). Woodcarver, the leader of the 'good' Tines was referenced as being a 'he' but was currently a 'she'. Fascinating stuff! Both Woodcarver and Pilgrim (another Tine pack) both have puppies, though Pilgrim identifies as a he (but clearly has female members). Just a very interesting idea all around.
But the good bits! Holy crap. The inventiveness of the Skoderiders, the whole idea of the different levels of the universe where different technology would work, the whole idea of transcendent beings, the Blight, the Tines! The idea of pack minds was excellent.
The other thing was the pacing - the story was being told from 3 separate perspectives: the 2 humans on the Tine world (brother and sister) who find themselves on opposite sides of a Tine civil war and Ravna and her companions. It created lots of genuine tension. The good guys helping the bad guys for a bit (they didn't know they were the bad guys as they were communicating across the galaxy). It all ramps up in the final 50 pages as Ravna, Pham and the Skroderiders reach the Tine world with a battle already started between Flenser and Steel's forces vs Woodcarver's forces.
What I especially enjoyed was the Amdijefri combo. Jefri is one of the children who ends up on the Tine world and is captured by the bad guys. However, he's put in with one of the experiments Amdi - an 8 member pack who are all puppies (the Tines are often referenced as dog-like). The puppies take to Jefri and learn his language alongside the Tine language and so they're often referenced as Amdijefri as they all work together all the time (they're being manipulated by Flenser and Steel to keep in contact with Ravna). It's pretty adorable. The personality of Amdi was so endearing.
Anyway. I don't know if I can do it justice. But it's just so much better in scope, pacing, story telling and characters than most of the books I've read on the list so far.
The only thing that will kill it being so good will be the march of time. In was written in 1992, at the beginning of the internet and it very much has that internet feel about it. Access being expensive to some, newsnets, the download speeds. No mobiles, no social media (and maybe that won't be relevant in millions of years when this takes place) but it still has that sort of early internet feel about it. Just like social media references will feel in books now when they change into something else. However, I think the core of the story will still be brilliant, which will make up for all the technological obsolescence.
So, a hearty 5/5 for this and I totally recommend reading it.