Silence in Solitude

by Melissa Scott

Cover image

Series: Roads of Heaven #2
Publisher: Nelson Doubleday
Copyright: 1986
Printing: 1987
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 230

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This is the second book in the Roads of Heaven series and should be read after Five-Twelfths of Heaven. I read this book as part of the Roads of Heaven book club omnibus. This sidebar information is for that omnibus, except for the page count.

This is the second book of a trilogy that's also a bit of a coming-of-age story, following a path of growing power for the protagonist, so I was bracing myself for typical middle-book concerns. The middle book of that sort of trilogy is notoriously difficult to write since the characters have neither the impetus of starting out nor can reach a final triumph, leaving the book with a tendency to wander. It typically contains lots of education for the protagonist followed by a minor interim victory or possibly a setback. It's hard for that middle book to be as interesting as either the first book or the last.

I was pleasantly surprised here, though. Scott doesn't break entirely away from the formula — Silence in Solitude does roughly follow the side quest model — but nonetheless delivers a great book in its own right. This is, in sharp distinction from the first book, a caper novel. Furthermore, it's a good caper novel.

Silence in Solitude revolves around the Women's Palace, a harem-like (but without the sexual purpose) closed palace for high-ranking women of the Hegemony, surrounded by intense security. For reasons related to the overall plot of the series, Silence and her companions have to both infiltrate the palace and get one of the women held hostage there out again. This provides opportunities to show off not only Scott's intriguing alchemical magic system, but also Silence's ability to navigate an extremely sexist and smotheringly "protective" culture. She's more deft than aggressive, which for me makes her a more believable and interesting strong female protagonist for this background. She doesn't react to her culture like an outsider; rather, she finds ways to act against it, to play the game in a way that undermines it.

Scott's characters in general are excellent, but I particularly like the way she writes women in this universe. The dominant culture in the Roads of Heaven universe has distinctly medieval ideas about the role of women in society, and most of the women encountered here are stuck in those roles. But they're not helplessly stuck and they're not only victims. Scott balances the injustice and helplessness with ingenuity and resourcefulness in a way that rings true to both. There isn't going to be an unrealistic sudden change of mindset across the whole culture, but neither are the women hostages to a point of social criticism. Silence in Solitude provides solid entertainment with an additional layer of struggle against a culture that demeans one's sex, a layer that doesn't take over the story but provides some nice depth.

I tried and failed to find a good book to which to compare Five-Twelfths of Heaven. Silence in Solitude is easier to compliment that way: it reminds me of Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan books, and one of the better ones at that. It has the same delightful tension of secret identities and improvised plans, built up with excellent pacing and enjoyable characters. I personally like Silence better than Miles, although I suspect that will be a matter of opinion. But for me, at least, Silence's calmer thoughtfulness and careful determination are both more appealing and more interesting than Miles's manic energy. The first book of this series introduced a great universe with a functional story; this is a great story built on that same universe (although we don't get as many fascinating new details here).

Five-Twelfths of Heaven is a great book, and you should read that first. If you liked it, definitely continue on to Silence in Solitude, which is even better. I'm very much looking forward to reading the third.

Followed by The Empress of Earth.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-11-07

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