Well, I wrote an entire review for this – and one I was rather pleased with too – and then accidently overwrote the draft when I started typing up my notes for the book for my Spoilers, Notes and Theories blog. Here’s hoping I can remember enough to recreate something similar.
I first read Julie E. Czerneda’s A Thousand Words for Stranger (isn’t that such an evocative title?) several years ago, but unfortunately I remembered very little about it. In an effort to encourage myself to a reread, I kept nominating it for the SF read of the month at [Beyond_Reality] and finally it got picked for February. It took me longer than I expected to read it – about a week – but it was because it was a detailed and somewhat complicated book, not because it was a bad one.
A young woman is travelling with an escort on the planet Auord when they are attacked and she escapes, fleeing into the rain. Memoryless, she finds herself driven by hidden compulsions to get herself off planet, preferably in the company of human spacer, Jason Morgan. So begins Sira’s journey to find out who she is, what has happened to her and why, and why she is being chased by multiple groups of people for a variety of inexplicable reasons. She and Morgan must face mysterious (and not-so mysterious) enemies as they find themselves caught up in an attempt by the humanoid but alien Clan to save themselves from extinction. They must also deal with space pirates, Trade Pact enforcers, a variety of Clansfolk with differing agendas and, just to make things more complicated, their own growing feelings for each other.
The above is a relatively straightforward description of what is actually quite a complicated book. Czerneda is a biologist and the central theme of this book is a biological “what if” that is explored in great detail, all while the novel masquerades as an action mystery with a hint of romance. Author John Scalzi hosts a regular feature on his blog, Whatever, where he asks authors to discuss the “big idea” behind their novels, and Czerneda’s contribution, which discusses the origins of the Clan, and with them, Sira and Morgan, can be found here. It’s an interesting read that intrigues without spoiling the books and it’s what encouraged me to reread A Thousand Words for Stranger.
The book is primarily written in first person POV, telling the tale through Sira’s eyes as she slowly gathers enough information and experience to find out who she is, what has happened to her and why. It is a good way to tell an amnesia story as the reader and the protagonist solve the mystery together. As well as Sira’s POV, the story includes interludes told is third person POV, which Czerneda uses to tell parts of the story where Sira is not present. This worked well for me as those little extra pieces put me, the reader, a slight step ahead of Sira. That meant that as she then discovered something new I had a little bit of extra information to help me make sense of it all. However, one of the members of [Beyond_Reality] really disliked it and I got the impression it significantly spoiled the book for her because she felt it was a cheat on the author’s part. This is one of those things that is going to be very much a matter of personal taste.
Be warned that this is not a simple book. It’s not impossibly complicated – there are other SF books out there that have confused me much more than this one ever did – but you do have to pay attention and study the clues and explanations carefully if you want to fully understand Czerneda’s Clan and their problems. For all that I have a BSc(Hons) degree in chemistry and biochemistry, biology has never been one of my strong points. I never studied it at school (always planning to be a chemist) and had to play catch-up when I started my biochem papers to get some of the basic ideas down pat. (I’m a reactions and pathways girl and not into the squishy biology stuff.) All the same, I wanted to understand – so I took a lot of notes. Fortunately, I was reading this as an ebook and there are multiple bookmarks all through it as I highlighted passages that either seemed important or were confusing. (Those notes are over on my Spoilers, Notes and Theories blog.) By taking time to highlight text and then typing it out earlier today, I feel I do pretty much understand what was going on in the book. There are only two things I remain puzzled about and while one is a case of mild confusion (why is the Council’s last step in their plan to erase Sira’s mind to escape the “dictates of Choice”?), the other is something that I hope will be addressed in a later book (if Sira has given her Power-of-Choice to Morgan, how has and will that affect him?). But all in all, I feel Czerneda put in everything the reader needs to understand what is going on, and the degree to which one wants to understand determines how much work one needs to put into it.
This is a book about ideas (or perhaps more the ramifications of a particular idea) than it is a book about characterisation, but I still found the characters interesting and likeable. Sira and Morgan, as the main protagonists, are by far the most developed characters, while the more satellite characters are less rounded. Personally, I was reading the book for Sira, Morgan and the idea, so this worked fine for me. The others are sufficient for the tale that is being told and certainly don’t hurt it in any way. I very much liked the way Sira slowly found herself as the book progressed – and then discovered that the person she had been before was not someone she particularly liked. Her conflict at being two people, the now-Sira she has been since she lost her memory and the old-Sira who is a stranger to her, is nicely portrayed as is her journey from wanting to stay who she is now, even if that means not being a fully integrated person, to being ready to take the risk to become a third Sira who is a combination of the other two. While this is not really a book about identity, Sira’s struggles with these issues are nicely done.
I wasn’t until I read the author’s introduction to Ties of Power, the sequel to A Thousand Words for Stranger, that I realised we know very little about Morgan’s past beyond a vague reference to having made some bad choices. For all that, I got a solid feeling for his character and I like him a lot – which makes me look forward to Ties of Power all the more where Czerneda implies in the introduction that his past while be explored further. I’d particularly like to know what inspired him to paint most of his cabin with flora and fauna and when and how he discovered he had the talent to do so. (Me, I struggle with stick figures, so I appreciate how much talent is required to do something like that.)
Julie Czerneda is currently writing the third book in a trilogy about the Stratification, the time when the Clan spilt into those who could touch the M’hir, the main source of their power, and those who could not. Hints about this time are tossed out in A Thousand Words for Stranger, and knowing about the new trilogy, I made a point of taking notice of them. It looks like an interesting time and it should cover the origin of the biological impasse that is the crux of this book. After that, Czerneda plans to come full circle back to Sira and Moran and I guess/hope that she will come up with the solution to that issue. I’m looking forward to reading Ties of Power and I do hope that books continue to hold my interest as I like Sira and Morgan and the ideas Czerneda is exploring. If they do, there’s going to be a lot of good, biological SF in my future and that will be a good thing.
As I said right at the beginning, I do love the title of this book. There is something just so evocative about it. Everyone has become a stranger to Sira, and she says this to a woman who claims to be her sister. Rael replies:
There must be a thousand words for stranger in the explored galaxy. Let one of them be sister.
It doesn’t really mean anything special – or maybe it means everything – but I like it.
This isn’t the best SF novel I’ve ever read, but it is far, far from the worst as well. It was Czerneda’s first novel and I look forward to reading more of her work and seeing how it has developed in the years since A Thousand Words for Stranger was first published.
A Thousand Words for Stranger
Julie E. Czerneda
Trade Pact, Book 1
Notes for A Thousand Words for Stranger
- A Thousand Words for Stranger
- Ties of Power
- To Trade the Stars