Liz Williams is one of the new wave of British SF writers who came to prominence in the late 1990s. After only a couple years or so of placing high-quality short stories with Interzone and Asimov's, Williams quickly moved to publishing full-length novels. Her novel Banner of Souls was nominated for the Philip K. Dick award last year.
Her new novel, Darkland, is set on Muspell, a colony world inhabited by descendants of Icelanders and other Norsemen who fled the greenhousing of Earth several thousand years earlier. The lands in Muspell's Northern Hemisphere are predominantly (although not exclusively) matriarchal. They have established a somewhat Taoist society, in which checks and balances prevent excessive domination by any single faction. By contrast, Darkland, in the planet's southern hemisphere, has been settled by eugenicists intent on creating a society of über-men, where women are at best second-class, and at worst fit only for breeding.
The two societies coexist in an uneasy cold peace, monitoring each other for signs that the peace will end in conflict. The northerners use the Skald, a spiritually based order (its members use meditation to develop their powers) as their intelligence service. The Darklanders have their own equivalent, the Vitki. But the Vitki always wish to dominate rather than cooperate, and to belittle and abuse women.
The issues of sex and gender, love versus control, and the use of sex as a weapon run throughout Darkland. Vali Hallsdottir, a Skald operative, is sent to the repressively patriarchal world of Hlem at the request of the local women’s resistance. Women on Hlem are viewed as unclean, beasts fit only for loveless procreation, and the planet's ruler has established a program to selectively breed intelligence out of their women. After she completes the mission, Vali’s pick-up goes awry, and she only narrowly escapes. She learns that her comrade on the mission was her former lover, a Vitki defector who subsequently disappeared, and who was so effectively disguised that she did not recognize him, except in hindsight.
Vali's story—her flashback to her love affair and subsequent mission to Darkland to find her former lover and establish what the Vitki's intentions are—is one of two narrative threads running through the novel.
In the second thread, Ruam, a young hunter on the isolated colony world of Mondhile, encounters a mysterious young woman. Shortly afterward he is injured, and the young woman, Gemaley, and her brother rescue him and take him to their home, a sinister black tower guarded by energy fields. It quickly becomes clear that Ruam is more captive than guest.
Meanwhile, Vali returns from her less-than-successful mission to Darkland, and the two threads of the novel begin to steadily converge.
Darkland is for the most part a good socioanthropological SF novel. The alien societies are convincingly drawn, especially Vali's homeworld. There are some genuinely innovative depictions of aliens, the characterization is never less than absorbing, and throughout, I never knew what to expect next. Darkland is thought-provoking and at times unsettling, and there was a pervading sense that at any time, the SF could turn into outright horror. For three hundred and five of its three hundred and eight pages, I enjoyed Darkland more than any other SF novel I've read in the last three or four years.
Then, having reached the logical end of the story and the protagonists’ emotional journey, Williams tacks on an epilogue so gratuitous and clumsy that it all but obliterates the memory of all the good writing of the first three hundred pages.
Throughout, Darkland appears to be a freestanding novel. It isn’t. Publishers clearly haven’t realized that some readers prefer single novels to series. Some readers don’t mind which they read, and some (such as myself) don’t mind as long as they know.
It’s the lack of transparency that is so frustrating.
There is not a single hint on the cover or in the blurb that Darkland is part of a series. There are minor unresolved plot threads, but science fiction is full of writers less than interested in seamless plotting, Jack Vance being a prime example. I suspect that the back story, so intriguingly sketchy, will be filled in so thoroughly that it’s as smooth and uninteresting as a model’s face in a cosmetic ad.
It’s Williams’s publishers who make the final decision what goes on the cover—or doesn’t, so that isn’t her responsibility, of course. But she is responsible for that appalling atonal epilogue, so at odds with all that’s gone before.
Read Darkland anyway, and enjoy what is a passable novel, but stop at the penultimate paragraph.
Colin Harvey lives just outside Bristol, in the U.K., with his wife and two spaniels. He is the author of a dozen short stories that have appeared in magazines such as Gothic.net, Pedestal Magazine, and Flash Me, while his novel Vengeance was published by the Winterborn Press in late 2005.