Reading Justina Robson can be a bit like reading Gene Wolfe: you get to the end and you realize that the author is much smarter than you are, and that you need to go back and re-read the book to find all of the things you have missed. I don’t really have time for that, and anyway there’s plenty enough to enjoy in a single reading, so here I go with my imperfect understanding of Glorious Angels.
Let’s start with the setting, because that’s easy. There is a planet, there is an empire of some sort, and it appears to be aging and decrepit. Certainly there is an awful lot of technology that is indistinguishable from magic. There may also be magic, who can tell?
The action is centered on the city state of Glimshard, ruled over by the Empress Yaphantine Shamuit Torada. Here is a description of the city:
Over its high top they were able to see most of the capital’s sprawling hillsides climbing steadily towards the clustered citadels of the Terrace. From the Terrace’s heart a thick trunk of what appeared to be many fine crystal stems drew a straight line upward in shining facets of rose and turquoise. Ever-undulating internal lights seemed faint in this hot afternoon of glare and dust, the outer veils of this stem flickering and unreliable in auroras of changing hue. The Gleaming, its heavy flowerhead, was mostly lost in hazy cloud but occasional spires and towers of the Arrays far above them caught the light and glinted down.
Yes, it is probably in part a nod to the city of Sky in NK Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. But it is much more than that. Don’t forget that description of the city, because it will mean something later in the book.
The Empire is comprised of eight city states. Each city is ruled over by an Empress. The eight are telepathically linked. That does not mean that they all get on. The other Empresses look down upon Torada, mainly because she is just a teenager, but also because she prefers to rule by being loved than by being feared.
Loving Torada is not hard. She has pheromones that can win over all but the most steely-minded citizen. Provided, of course, that she can get close enough to exert her influence.
The central character of the book is Tralane Huntingore, Professor of Engineering at the Glimshard Academy of Sciences. Tralane has no real idea why the various machines she works with operate. Disciplines such as physics are but hazy memories. But she is a genius at getting things to work. She is also a single mother with two teenage daughters who have just arrived at that annoying age where any man you might hope to date is likely to be more interested in your daughters than he is in you. Not that this bothers Tralane too much. She’s much happier in oily overalls taking strange machines apart than in a ballgown. And anyway, she’s a powerful noblewoman; if she wants a man, she can have one.
Yes, this is a world in which women rule. Don’t ask why, they just do. I mean, why shouldn’t they? There has been no global catastrophe to do away with patriarchy. There never was patriarchy. At least not in living memory. Equally this is not some radical lesbian feminist utopia. Torada, who rules by love, is happy for her citizens to find it where they may. The city’s language has more words for genders than Justina can easily translate into English. Sex is central to the rose-like city, and men are a key part of that equation.
Nevertheless, a city cannot run on sex alone. Mastery over ancient technology is key to prosperity. Archaeologists from Glimshard have discovered a significant deposit in the far south. Few people in the city, not even Tralane, have much idea what it is, but everyone knows that it must be hugely valuable because so much money and manpower is being poured into securing it. The trouble is that the Fragment, as it is known, is too big to move, and is located in the forest lands of the Karoo.
The Karoo are ignorant primitives with no grasp of technology.
The Karoo are bioplastic and telepathic. They are far closer to nature than mere humans could ever hope to be.
The Karoo, once you get to know them, are fucking terrifying.
The people of Glimshard do not know that. Which is why, when a lone Karoo male arrives in the city and volunteers to serve as a mercenary in the city’s army, most of the women of the city can’t wait to get a glimpse of him. General Borze and his aide, Parillus, having provided us earlier with our view of the city, take in the newcomer.
Head and shoulders taller than any Empire man with a muscular physique that was spare and clear-cut, he looked like a stone sculpture of some legendary fighter. That was where the extent of his resemblance to men of the Empire ended however. He was blue-grey and white, and colours marbled darkly on his back and on the backs of his arms, light on his front and undersides. He was also as thickly maned as Parillus’s horse, with silvery-white hair that surged not only off his head in great hanks but from his neck and along the length of his spine too, disappearing under his belt in finger-length tufts. To either side of this, tiger stripes of intense sunburnt orange spread out around his ribs and waist, feathered the edges of his neck and emerged either side of his head in triangular ears, their thickly furred points tipped with lynxlike purple feather hair that flicked whenever the ears turned — something they did independently of each other in a way Borze found disturbing.
Trust me here: I have only skimmed the surface of this book. Most of what I have given you above is set-up in the first few chapters. Actually I have left out the first chapter entirely as I want you to enjoy reading it as it was intended. There is so much more: about Glimshard and Torada; about Tralane’s daughters; about the Karoo; and about the Fragment. Never forget, also, that Justina has a philosophy degree. That fact will crop up and surprise you when you least expect it.
It is possible, of course, that this book is not for the faint-hearted. Certainly it is not for the dudebros, who will be utterly squicked out by all that sex and matriarchy and stuff. It may also squick out younger women who think the idea of a mother of teenage girls having sex is just, ewwww, gross! Suck it up, kids, you’ll be in our position eventually. Finally, of course, there is thought required. You can read and enjoy Glorious Angels on a skim through, but you will get so much more out of it from thinking hard about what you are reading.
For more information about Justina Robson, see the SF Encyclopedia.
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