The Wilding

by C.S. Friedman

Cover image

Series: In Conquest Born #2
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: 2004
Printing: July 2005
ISBN: 0-7564-0202-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 551

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In Conquest Born is a rather odd space opera, featuring an interstellar war between two great empires that culminates in an intensely personal struggle between leaders of the two sides. It has one of the most intensely misogynistic societies in science fiction (the villains, yes, but weirdly ambiguous villains), genetic breeding programs for telepaths, and a host of unlikable but oddly fascinating characters. I thought it was weaker on re-read than I remembered it being originally, but it's still singular enough in memory that I wanted to read the sequel.

The Wilding picks up in the same universe a century and a half later. I expected more of a direct connection to the plot of In Conquest Born, but I think this book could be read on its own. (This is good, given how the plot of In Conquest Born tends to slip out of my memory, despite how unique the book is.) The Azeans and the Braxins are, of course, still at war, an on-again, off-again affair that neither side seems likely to ever win. But the Azeans have forbidden psychic powers and driven all psychics underground, if they still exist at all. They are supposedly too unstable to be allowed in the carefully constructed Azean society.

Tathas is Braxin, but not from the ruling Braxaná tribe. He is caught practicing old rituals of his native tribe and escapes sentence of death by going on the Wilding, an ancient practice of leaving Braxin culture to find new genetic material and bring it back to strengthen their species. Or, put in less euphemistic terms, to find and rape a woman and bring back the resulting child, although apparently retrieving a genetic sample would also work. Did I mention the misogynistic society part? Still there.

Zara, the other primary protagonist, is an Azean mediator who, as the book is opening, starts developing psychic powers. This is a rather serious problem that gets her suspended from her job. Her check of her own genetic records (the old-school SF obsession with eugenics is also still there) leads to the discovery that she's an identical twin, whose sister was kidnapped as an infant under mysterious circumstances and apparently by underground psychics. Zara decides to go in search of her.

As with In Conquest Born, this book is full of deeply unpleasant societies and world views. Also as with In Conquest Born, I don't think Friedman intends any of them to be held up as examples of correct politics or behavior. What makes both of these books unusual is that neither she nor the characters seem to be making any attempt to construct a third alternative that would be better. The secret society of psychics has a different appeal, but it's not clear the characters would want to be part of it either, and it's quite possible that they're still responsible for a lot of the crap that's going on in the galaxy. The book feels like it ought to be political, as these societies are clearly broken and deeply abusive (the Braxins more obviously than the Azeans, but they're both creepy), but it mostly isn't.

Instead, The Wilding is focused on individual people trying to make their way in this world. Those people come from varying strata of these societies. Zara and Tathas are there throughout; other characters crop up briefly with their own viewpoints and then often go away again or are killed. I think Friedman is going for a story of raw emotion and a tight focus on individual actions, with little in the way of clean morality or broader morals. And yet... the final act of the protagonists in the book is a political act that seems aimed at making the universe a better place. In a way, this is a very cynical book: there is a tremendous amount of manipulation and political maneuvering, and it's hard to see any cause here that one can fully support.

This is all rather similar to In Conquest Born, but what held the previous book together was its backbone of obsessive vengeance and the spectacle of two intelligent people from utterly different societies locked in all-out emotional and physical combat. The Wilding doesn't have that. It has characters with strong motives and strong emotions, but none of them are the sort of epic, transcendent emotions that propel mythic heroes at each other. This is a more prosaic and personal book, which means the drama isn't strong and sweeping enough to make the reader forget the deep unpleasantness that's going on around them. The Wilding feels less like a clash of titans and more like personal quests for identity against a universe full of awful people and worse systems. It also retains, in the Braxin, aggressive male-dominant sexuality just this side of a Gor novel, but here that feels seedier and even more squirm-inducing than it did in In Conquest Born. The Wilding is even more ambiguous about the ethics of that sexual and misogynistic abusiveness; Tathas partly gives it up, but this is presented more as an accommodation to another culture than as a real engagement with the inherent abusiveness of Braxin society.

I still have no idea whether and to whom I would recommend In Conquest Born. I'm less torn about The Wilding: don't bother. It's a lesser work in all respects, it shares some of the problems with too many characters and an occasionally incoherent plot, and I had even more trouble with the horrible societies Friedman creates than I did in the previous book. And it doesn't have the same counterbalance of epic, uncontrolled emotions and characters who seem to transcend the story they're in. Instead, it feels more like a story of damaged people in an awful universe who are meddling through as best they can while being manipulated by the people with real power. It got more depressing the more I thought about it, and the ending doesn't salvage the story.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-06-28

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21