Author: Mary Gentle
Details: (c) 1983 Mary Gentle; Pub Signet 1985; ISBN 0-451-13606-3
Verdict: I adore Golden Witchbreed with a passion!
Reasons for reading it: I love it, and hadn't reread it for a while. The immediate trigger was that I lent it to ploni_bat_ploni, who was gratifyingly enthusiastic about it, and that made me want to reread it myself.
How it came into my hands: I think darcydodo gave it to me, but she might just have encouraged me to buy it.
I can hardly express how enthusiastic I am about Golden Witchbreed. In some ways, it's just the kind of story that I really like, about encountering another culture and forming connections in spite of serious differences in approach. There is a lot of action and excitement, but the plot is driven by character and by the relationships between people. And real relationships in all their variety, not elevating a certain kind of Romance above every other human interaction.
It's also beautifully written. The descriptions are so vivid without being pretentious. I really felt inside Christie's skin reading this; I could just imagine how it felt to be her, and her perceptions really build up her character as well as revealing the amazingly detailed and layered world-building. Since Christie is an outsider learning gradually about the world, this helps to set up the plot as well, with the backstory being revealed at just the right pace to make it exciting. That part is well balanced with drama on the level of the individual characters and immediate things happening. The betrayal at the end had a really strong emotional impact, even though I have read the book several times before and knew it was coming.
In many ways Golden Witchbreed feels like a response to The Left Hand of Darkness It has a similar set-up of a human visitor to an alien world, where gender among other things is weird. In other ways, it's not the same kind of book at all, which I think is a good thing, because anyone who is not Le Guin trying to be her would make a mess of it. It's also a very Star Trek type setting; we have a universe where FTL travel allows humanity to make contact with a lot of planets inhabited by aliens who could be played by human actors, and language issues are handled with judicious application of handwavium, where the Federation-equivalent is basically benevolent though prepared to use military force as a last resort, and obsessive about not interfering too much with low-tech civilizations. But GW is doing some really amazing things with those rather crude starting premises. One example of the way it's cool is that the world is a whole world, with different cultures and different factions, not a unified entity.
I get the impression Golden Witchbreed was really let down by marketing. OK, it was a first novel, but it's a real shame that so few people are aware of it. Most people encounter Gentle via the massively hyped Ash, which has some strengths but is a deeply flawed book, or possibly via her alt-history Renaissance stuff which is good but extremely weird. And either of those is likely to put people off reading GW, even if they do happen to find it when it isn't easily available. Anyway, my major regret about GW is that it comes to an end. I suppose all books have to, but I really want more of this. The fact that the sequel, Ancient Light, is absolutely terrible, makes the situation worse than if there were no sequel at all.