Rebel Sutra can be seen from two points of view. First, it is a fine novel, presenting the harsh planet Maya, the interesting people who inhabit that world, and a fast-paced, engrossing plot. Second, it gives us a glimpse of a much larger setting and plot: the future of the interstellar Flower Empire, ravaged for decades by civil war, depends on the events taking place on Maya, a world which has been separated from its imperial heritage for generations. The book attempts to follow in the footsteps of classics such as Dune and Foundation, setting up a story spanning worlds and generations. This is a book begging for a sequel.
But let us focus on the story at hand. Maya's small habitable region is populated by two variant species of humanity, who dwell in two segregated cities. The citizens of Babelion are more or less normal humans, but the Changed, who live in the city of Xanadu, have been extensively altered from the human norm. They have superior intelligence in many respects and retain health and beauty until they are very old. More subtly, their neurons have also been altered to allow them to interact with and augment a vast AI, the Exchange, which controls the infrastructure of the colony. Unfortunately, the Changed have little subcutaneous fat and odd metabolisms, so they are less tolerant of temperature changes than normal humans. Since even the "temperate" zone on Maya experiences frigid winters and sweltering summers, the delicate Changed seldom emerge from the climate controlled dome that protects their city.
Because they control the Exchange, and the Exchange controls the supplies of energy and fresh water for the whole colony, the Changed have come to rule over the humans, who not only provide basic labor and food but also perform all other functions not directly related to work inside the Exchange. Despite their alleged superiority, the Changed require human medics, police, and even nursemaids for their children. As a good will gesture, every year the best and brightest of the city's children are allowed to test alongside those Changed children joining the Exchange, a process in which the neural interface is cemented, and the Exchange itself judges how best to use the processing capacity of the mind being tested. Of course, the Changed know that the humans lack both the biology and the training to pass the test -- their perpetual failure can only remind them of their place, and the process brings in good candidates for those vital jobs that the Changed themselves are unwilling to fill.
The static world the Changed enforce begins to crumble when Della, a rebellious young woman, flees the dome and spends a couple of years with a mysterious group of gypsy-like travelers known as the Tinkers. Their leader, Auntie Suu-Suu, seems to have a keen interest in training Della and directing her future. When she returns home, she is regarded with some suspicion but is accepted back into Changed society.
A month before Della is to join with the Exchange, the year's crop of human candidates are brought up to be paired with Changed students for tutoring before the test. Della, the outcast among her kind, is paired with Arsen, a charismatic young man who is just as strong-willed as she. Though their strong personalities clash, they are drawn to each other, and while their taboo relationship begins as simple teenage lust, Arsen's idealism, combined with Della's political savvy, will ultimately lead, through the actions of their sterile half-breed child Anselm, to the end of the rule of the Changed and the rediscovery of the true nature of the colony on Maya.
Lest you should think I'm exposing too much, let me assure you that all of this is clear from very early in the book. How the revolution occurs, and why it matters to the rest of the galaxy, is the meat of the story. And there's plenty to hold your attention. The deranged personality of the Exchange begins to suggest that the Changed are not the true rulers on Maya. Auntie Suu-Suu pursues a secret agenda. The machinations of Sithra, Della's enemy among the Changed Authorities, pose threats at every step. And constantly, in the background, the events of the story impinge on the empire.
It's worth noting that while most of the book is hard science fiction, it also has strong elements of spirituality, mostly drawn, as you might guess from the title, from Indian traditions. There are a few passages in which one must allow for some sort of psychic phenomena. Of course, considering the prevalence of such things in the world of Dune, this hardly seems a great crime on the part of the author. If you are religiously opposed to fantasy elements in science fiction, these bits may irritate you, but I found them perfectly natural within the framework of the story.
A major feature of the book that some people may see as a fault is its verbal style. The whole book is written in the first person, mainly from the points of view of Della and Anselm, with some interjections from Auntie Suu-Suu. All three voices are articulate, distinct, and interesting, but they ramble somewhat, as storytellers are wont to do when speaking extemporaneously. Anecdotes which explain plot details are often inserted in the middle of the narrative. You don't have to spend too much time flipping back and forth to keep track of dialogue, but you probably will have to do that now and then, and if you are frustrated by this type of writing, you won't get through the first fifty pages.
I'm a fan of the oral tradition -- I love Homer, Beowulf, and the works of Jay O'Callahan -- so I took great pleasure in this aspect of the book. I might also add that, considering that the classic epic poems were passed down through such tradition, this seems an appropriate style for the epic scope of the story. If the book were poorly written, one might accuse the author of adopting this style to make it easy to insert explanations as they became necessary to support plot devices, but Ms. Lewitt does an extraordinarily good job of making the style coherent and consistent, so that the plot remains on-track without support, and the details are revealed to the reader in much the way that clues are piled on in a mystery.
The main fault I found was that the book sometimes seems to move a little too fast, introducing new plot threads with no forewarning, and requiring acceptance of at least one excessively tidy coincidence. This may be in part because the book was revised at the last minute to fit in elements that were intended to appear in its sequel, because publication of that sequel was uncertain. The author wanted to make sure that her readers got a basic description of the Flower Empire, which she'd spent a good deal of time developing. Since the book was picked as a Main Selection of the Science Fiction Book Club, and has received positive reviews, a sequel does seem likely now.
For that, we can only be grateful, because, as I said at the outset, this book absolutely demands a sequel, exploring more of the galactic empire. In past imperial sagas, much of the joy of the novels was getting to know the worlds in which they took place. A well-imagined world can draw in readers in a way that all but the very best characters, without such a backdrop, cannot. Although Rebel Sutra offers us only a glimpse of the Flower Empire, the vividness with which Ms. Lewitt sees it shines through. Her creation has the potential to rank among the best of SF worlds. Go buy a copy of the first book -- I want to read the next!