Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Jan 31 10:29:44 EST 1990

Raymond's Reviews #3

%T The Cage
%A S. M. Stirling and Shirley Meier
%I Baen Fantasy
%D Aug 1989
%O paperback, $3.50
%P 402
%G 0-671-69836-2

Don't be fooled by the Baen Fantasy imprint or the gorgeous cover -- The Cage is not fantasy but a gritty, bloody, realistic work of post-holocaust SF. This is a book that will grab you by the viscera and not let go.

As it opens, we meet Megan Whitlock and her companion/lover Shkai'ra in the act of reclaiming the southernmost branch of the river trading house that was once hers. It develops that she had been drugged, raped and sold into slavery halfway across the world by her former lieutenant Habiku and has made her way back through many an adventure, burning with the need for revenge.

It is no accident that the novel begins long after her escape and after the better part of her journey home. For, although this book has a fully satisfying measure of adventure and derring-do, it isn't about adventure -- it's about domination and revenge and the the twisted, intimate relationships that can grow between those who become entangled in both.

Megan and Shkai'ra must fight and trick their way upriver against everything Habiku can send at them. As they do, we get a vivid montage of a complex of vital societies four thousand years after a nuclear spasm. The basic tech level is about 16th-century but with some odd differences -- they make fiberglass and have at least some medical skills beyond the present day's, but don't use gun- powder. There is some `magic' in the world, but it's obviously a fairly weak sort of psionics rather than the baroque occultistic magic of most fantasy.

As the plot thickens we get a good look at two strong protagonists and a thoroughly nasty but very human and three-dimensional villain. Stirling's previous work (Marching Through Georgia, Under The Yoke) has displayed a dark fascination with the psychosexual dynamics of slavery -- the way in which identification with the oppressor can turn into an unholy parody of love. That theme is here too, and as in those books it's handled in a clear-eyed way that never loses sight of the essential evil in such transactions (this book is definitely not S&M porn or anything like a Gor pastiche).

Some readers may find the authors' depiction of the loving relationship between Megan and Shkai'ra abhorrent. Others may read a shrill, anti-male agenda into it. Both reactions would miss the point, which is that in the novel's world gender makes very little social difference and casual bisexuality is quite the accepted norm. The novel would change very little if one or both were male -- the essential point is that they love and trust one another. And what distinguishes Megan from Habiku, in the end, is that she knows how to love and learns to free herself from the bonds of hatred.

Blessedly, there is nothing cheap or gooey or sentimental about this discovery in The Cage, no starry-eyed pieties about love conquering all and dissolving antagonisms into a rosy haze of good feeling. Redemption, when it comes, is earned as much by blood and toil and courage and an unflinching willingness to see evil for what it is as by love.

Stirling and Maier deserve praise for having written a novel that works as an intense psychological study without sacrificing any of the action, color, and other virtues of the "pulp fiction" tradition. Happily, there's been a rash of this lately (I think of Lois McMaster Bujold's "Miles Vorkosigan" stories, in particular) but one can find examples as far back as Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination). The Cage is strong stuff -- and strongly recommended.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Jan 31 10:29:44 EST 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>