By Kay Kenyon
There is a lot packed in here, and in a good way: varied, believable characters who change as the story goes on; a deeply disturbing culture that is quite plausible; a mystery of a galactic scale; a first contact situation; power struggle politics; love and romance; mutinies; etc etc etc.
The opening threw me for a loop, though, so I’ll get it out of the way here. The first thirty-odd pages are disorienting, and not in a good way: we get a scene-setting prologue, psyching us up for a first contact scene, and then a chapter title page, and THEN… it transitions into a calm scene revealing they’ve been on the planet for weeks, speak the native tongue, and established basic relations. Whaat? Then the viewpoint skips around a bit, and it skips forward in time again (though not as far), and again, and it was around there that I fell into the rhythm of the book and didn’t notice it any further.
The different viewpoint characters are well done, with each character’s view and thoughts being convincingly different without being artificially so. Nick’s viewpoint is the only one that seems too contrived. The non-viewpoint characters are also well established, with surface and subsurface & sub-subsurface layers, with corresponding motives, each colliding and allowing dynamic character development that changes as the novel goes on.
Initially, the story strikes a grim tone, with the humans’ starship threatened by a breakout of lethal plague, no sign of the high-technology culture they are seeking, and lost, alone, and inable to understand or act effectively in the local Dassa culture. The integral role that slave labor and mutilation play in Dassa society only strengthen that feeling. However, partway through that grim feeling peaks, and a more determined, resurgent feel flares up to replace it, as the characters begin to gain more agency and understanding. While the humans’ feeling of being alone on an alien world surrounded by alien cultures never fades, they begin to understand the local culture and how to interact with it.
Some may wish to steer clear of this novel, as The Braided World portrays slave labor and mutilation fairly unflinchingly. However, these traditions of the Dassa are wrestled with by the main characters and some Dassa, and raise important anthropological questions about humanity, the Dassa, society, morality, and individual characters. They also provide important motivations and conflicts, and are the basis of nearly everything in the novel. Essentially, they are handled with care. Less grimly, the first third of the book was filled with scenes that evoke that awkward feeling that arises from witnessing a social transgression, as the humans are not entirely sure how to treat the Dassa.
The worldbuilding is very well done, establishing a unique and detailed world, both in terms of the landscape and ecology, the dwellings and buildings and artifacts of Dassa cultural life, and their behavior, before slowly fading in intensity as development of the world and introduction of the characters gives way to plot action, character action, and drama.
Cover Art Review: Actually relevant to the story! Simple yet effective design! Super neat LENS FLARE! AGHHHHH I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING!
Postscript: Dark matter clouds and information gradients are not a thing that sounds plausible, but- okay, okay.