Five-Twelfths of Heaven

by Melissa Scott

Cover image

Series: Roads of Heaven #1
Publisher: Nelson Doubleday
Copyright: 1985
Printing: 1987
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 234

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I read this book as part of the Roads of Heaven book club omnibus. The sidebar information is for that omnibus, except for the page count.

Silence Leigh is a star pilot, which by itself is remarkable. In this future starfaring world, women simply are not star pilots. In most places, including the ruling Hegemony, they're effectively the property of some man, either their father or their husband. Silence is unmarried and therefore a ward of her family, but has had remarkable opportunities due to her grandfather, the trading company that he ran, and his belief in her skills. Unfortunately, he's dead as the book opens, and Silence is effectively at the mercy of the court system and her uncle in her attempt to keep her grandfather's ship.

A future world with a medieval or conservative Islamic view of the status of women is only the first surprise in Scott's future background. The most startling feature of this world is the method of space travel, which is based on alchemical principles and musical tones rather than on scientific technology. (In fact, we discover that electronic technology is so disruptive to alchemical and magical source of power that it's banned from most areas and has to be heavily shielded where it is still used. Even mechanical technology is suspect.) Ships lift off by retuning their harmoniums towards heaven so that they repel earth. In space, away from the disrupting music of the planetary harmonium, they can achieve a twelfth of heaven, at which point they enter a different dimension called purgatory. Purgatory is a symbolic world in which faster-than-light travel is possible through the skill of a pilot, who can recognize and steer the ship through waypoints between the stars that bear as much resemblence to tarot and horoscope symbology as they do to astronomy.

This alternative method of travel is the heart of the book, and it's beautifully done. Scott hits just the right combination of strangeness, sense of wonder, and an underpinning of detail and measurement consistent with running whole civilizations on these techniques. Ships are rated in part on the speed they can reach on purgatory; one of the ships Silence pilots can achieve five-twelfths of heaven (hence the title of the book). Returning to planets requires careful piloting and retuning to steer a course through the conflicting music of the celestial spheres of that system. Silence's most valuable possessions are her starbooks, a cross between maps and astrology or tarot interpretation that catalog systems and describe the symbols of the roads between them in a way that lets trained pilots build an intuitive sense of the road and see the symbols when in purgatory.

This is not hard science fiction, even with a twist of alternative physics. There are outright magicians in this book (called magi) who can tap other planes to shape energy and essentially cast spells. But it's a world of interstellar travel and warfare, with engineers and pilots and technical problems in balancing the harmonium that serve exactly the same purpose as technical problems in more mundane science fiction. The general structure is familiar, but shot through with delightful differences to keep the reader interested. The use of a completely foreign technology for me helped suspension of disbelief and avoids the nit-picking of the physics of supposedly more realistic books.

Built on this world is a surprisingly dense plot for a short book. Silence falls in with a group of traders working in a grey area of the law, and then into much deeper trouble. There are many twists and tense moments, plus excellent characterization of a woman who wants to be independent and choose her own career and is hampered at every turn by a limiting and stifling social and governmental system. Silence is persistent but careful and knows when to keep her head down, which is an interesting change from the normal blunt forcefulness of strong female protagonists. She's a bit passive in places, and every once in a while the book will drag for a few pages, but the characterization and plot mostly live up to the world background and combine for a compelling story.

One could quibble a bit about the power levelling here, and character growth does follow some well-rutted paths in SF. But the world is so startlingly original and so impressively well-designed and thoroughly expressed (and so smoothly, with a beautifully slow reveal to the reader) that it defies comparison to any other starfaring adventure SF I've read. I fell in love with Scott's world within the first fifty pages, and was very glad I have the whole series in omnibus form on hand to keep reading.

This is the first book of a trilogy, but it reaches a mostly satisfying conclusion. There are obviously open hooks for future books, and Silence has only started her personal journey, but Five-Twelfths of Heaven has a definite climax and denouement. But after one taste, I think most people will want more. Highly recommended.

Followed by Silence in Solitude.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-10-17

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