Black Wine

by Candas Jane Dorsey

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: January 1997
Printing: January 1998
ISBN: 0-312-86578-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 285

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Black Wine is a very difficult book to summarize well enough to review. It's the sort of book where one is hopelessly confused halfway through, trying to make sense of multiple apparently-independent plot lines that are entangling deep below the surface of the narrative. The complexity then unwinds and reintegrates for the reader during its second half, but keeps moving fast enough that one is trying to slot the pieces of the world together while trying to understand the emotional arc of the character, unsure that one is correctly doing either. It's much longer than its 285 pages, and a book that, to appreciate properly, I suspect one would need to read twice in succession.

Alas, the universe of books is huge, and I did not take the time to read Black Wine twice in succession. So this is, in a sense, not a proper review of the full depth of the book. It's more of a collection of random impressions that have been given several weeks to age.

The story follows three people — sort of. It's the type of book where even that statement is complicated and shifting. Insofar as one could say that it has an overarching theme, it's a story about women: their roles in society, their interactions, their relationships, and their mothers and daughters. It opens with a madwoman in a cage befriended by a nameless female slave with no memory, warning from the start that parts of this book will not be gentle. The next two chapters quickly add a woman leaving home to find her mother, and a woman fleeing with a companion to the mountains for safety. Those threads continue in interleaved chapters until they start coming together, sometimes in ways I expected and sometimes in ways I didn't.

It's difficult even to wrap words around the setting of the story. At times, it feels medieval, with people kept in public cages in one part of the story and seaside villages full of day-to-day life in other parts. There isn't a lot of technology. But the ships are airships rather than sailing ships, and printing presses drop into the story later on without much surprise on the part of the characters. Other commentary about the book says there are hints that it takes place in a post-crash distant future of Earth; I'll take their word for it, but I didn't pick up on the hints. Another thing that doubtless comes clearer with a second reading.

This is also a book that was constantly catching me by surprise. The opening seems to set up a story of defiance and escape, possibly even the old story of a slave finding the inner power to overturn the civil order. Indeed, the plot goes quite some distance down that path, but then neither defiance nor escape play out as one would expect. There is a constant tension between escape from oppression and return to oppression; a tension between fighting against monsters (and possibly becoming a monster in the process) and living out one's life in happiness but without changing the world. And, towards the end of the book, there's a brilliant treatment of revolution that determinedly avoids going any of the expected places. It's one of the best treatments of the reality of revolution that I've seen in science fiction.

But the primary impression the book left on me was closely-observed beauty: page by page, story by story, it's gorgeously written, with tight control over the emotional tone. I cared deeply about the characters, even when I wasn't sure who they were or what they were doing. The places of fear and oppression are dark and grim, but equally well-drawn are the sparks of light and hope and friendship in the midst, and the gentle times with family or friends in lighter and freer places. It's hard to portray contented domesticity with its lack of narrative momentum, but Dorsey pulls it off. She also does a wonderful job portraying the complexities of friendship, immigration, quiet defiance, and finding cracks in systems, all while taking a very realistic and guarded approach to the human desire to fix everything.

This is not the book to grab if you're in the mood for a traditional narrative or an easily-understood story. It's a book that needs to be read slowly, and preferrably more than once. It's also quite brutal in places, the more so because it portrays the world so realistically that the brutality doesn't have the action-movie distancing. But it is beautifully written, complex, surprising, and fully deserving its Tiptree award for its exploration of aspects of being female. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-04-11

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21