by Nicola Griffith
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 18, 2021
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Nicola Griffith's Ammonite is one of the most impressive debut novels I've ever read. The lyrical prose, and the subject matter, gave me quite a few Ursula Le Guin vibes, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. Set on Grenchstom's Planet (aka GP, aka Jeep), which had been explored by an Earth expedition some three hundred years prior, but all contact had been lost. Now the interstellar conglomerate Durallium (aka Company) has established a new base at Port Central on the northeastern continent. Shortly after landing they made contact with groups that must have been descendants of survivors of the previous exploration, but also fell ill from a virus. Some women died; all the men did. Now a researcher on the orbiting station Estrade has developed the FN-17 vaccine that needs to be tested. Enter Marguerite "Marghe" Angelica Taishan, representative of the SEC, the joint Settlement and Education Councils, a body that oversees human rights on settled planets. Along with testing the vaccine, she is tasked with finding a previous SEC representative that had gone missing, as well as trying to negotiate trade agreements with the native inhabitants.
Marghe is escorted through the Singing Pastures and Holme Valley by several Company security personnel, nicknamed Mirrors from their highly reflective helmet visors. She negotiates trata (mutual trade and aid) to obtain a horse, then sets off on her own, her destination being Ollfoss in the northern Moanwood Forest, where she hopes to find the person she's seeking. Instead, she is captured by nomads of the Tehuantepec plateau when she accidentally trespasses at their sacred ringstone formation. The Echraide tribe believe the ringstones to have been built by their ancestors, but Marghe can tell they are much older than that, probably constructed by the semi-mythical, indigenous goths. While technically a captive, Marghe is also trained in the Echraide ways of herding taar (equivalent to cattle) and surviving the harsh conditions of the plateau, which include very severe winters. There are rivalries between various leaders among the Echraide, as well as against another tribe, the Briogannon, which presents Marghe a window of opportunity to escape. She wanders for days, nearly frozen to death by the time she is found by Leifin, a hunter from Ollfoss.
There are so many details of character and cultures, intricate world-building, it is a shame there has never been a sequel. Not just Marghe and the tribes she encounters, but also the Company personnel at Port Central. Commander Hannah Danner thinks she has done a good job, but there are apparently a few who don't agree. One complaint against her concerned a case against two women of Holme Valley, Danner's judgement being in their favor and against Company. In addition to the research ship Estrade, there is also a security vessel, the Kurst, which rumor has it will not allow anyone to leave Jeep due to fear of the virus. Danner uncovers a spy secretly messaging the Kurst about her activities. Add to that, we learn several of the "missing, presumed dead" personnel have actually gone native. The virus itself is a true curiosity, the effects of which verge into fantasy, but it is still plausible. A healer in Ollfoss convinces Marge the vaccine is actually harming her, so she stops taking it, and in so doing gains insight to how the women of Jeep have been able to reproduce without men.
Don't get the idea this is some sort of feminist utopia. Griffith is clear that women are not some alien species apart from men. They are completely human, and embody all the attributes of humanity, the good and the bad. Some are caring and nurturing, others are vindictive and desirous of power, some are so megalomaniacal they see death in battle as a glorious thing. Marghe learns as much about herself as she does Jeep, and in so doing has a vision of the potential cooperation between all parties. The Kurst has departed, but no one believes that Company won't be back some day. The hope is they can present a more united front against them when they do. There is a map in the front of the book, but it covers only a portion of the continent, and includes areas not yet explored in the narrative. Even if a sequel is never written, I can still imagine what lies in those lands to the west and south. And I can imagine the type of world Marghe and Thenike will create for their daughters. I give this the highest of recommendations.
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