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Windhaven by George RR Martin and Lisa Tuttle
(Bantam Spectra, $23.95, 336 pages, hardback; originally published 1981; this edition June 5, 2001.)
Review by John Grant

The first two of the three linked novellas that make up this book were published (in slightly different form) in 1975 and 1980, cover scanrespectively, in Analog; the third was added for the book's initial release in 1981. Martin and Tuttle have since gone on to achieve very high renown in two quite different areas of fantasy, so it may come as a surprise to some to discover not just that they collaborated but that they did so on what is ostensibly a science-fiction novel.

In fact, it's a science fantasy. Although there are occasional references to the fact that the people of the world of Windhaven came here from another world (presumably Earth) and although the rudimentary technology at the heart of the tale relies on the hi-tech material that was salvaged from the light-sails of those original spacefarers, in every other respect Windhaven is a fantasyland and the novel reads as a fantasy, albeit one refreshingly stripped of such paraphernalia as magic, wizardry and elves.

Windhaven has no significant landmasses, just islands strewn across the ocean. The winds are strong and incessant; the seas are dangerously stormy and populated by huge creatures called scyllas (for which read sea dragons). Communication between the islands is thus, for a culture that lacks radio, very difficult. Any sea journey is slow and dangerous. However, using the material from the light-sails the people of Windhaven have learned to construct wings. Designated flyers use these wings to travel as messengers from one island to another.

Because the supply of sail material -- almost weightless yet virtually indestructible -- is limited, and slowly reducing over time as the occasional flyer is lost, with wings, at sea, ownership of the wings is jealously guarded: the flyers have become a hereditary caste of their own, regarded as equals even by the islands' ruling Landsmen. Since time immemorial the wings have been passed down from each flyer to his or her first-born; on rare occasion childless flyers will adopt a child to inherit their wings.

Maris is one such. Born of fisherfolk, she is adopted by the flyer Russ, who trains her in the art of flying, at which she proves to excel. However, some years after the adoption he and his wife unexpectedly give birth to a boy, Coll. Although Maris in due course takes over Russ's wings when he becomes too infirm to fly, the rules are clear: when Coll comes of age she must give up the wings to him, as Russ's genuine first-born, even though Coll detests flying and wants instead to become a wandering minstrel.

The stupidity of this is evident to both Maris and Coll, and eventually they succeed in persuading the Council of Flyers that the rules must be changed, with flying academies being set up so that the land-bound may train in the art of flying and have the opportunity, at annual contests, to challenge born flyers for their wings.

In the second novella we discover that, although the academies have been established, the scales are heavily weighted against their graduates. Maris heads the drive to alter this situation, in so doing bringing a further attitudinal change not just to the community of flyers but also in the culture as a whole. In the third novella she has become herself too old to fly, the consequences of an accident finally persuading her that indeed her future must be as a land-bound; she, her lover and her minstrel brother Coll challenge the might of a tyrannical Landsman and in so doing effect the profound cultural change of bringing Windhaven's land-bound and flyers closer together at last.

The assault on any form of caste system, however derived -- through heredity, race or whatever -- is a clear component of this book, but is never allowed to become dominant in the reader's mind. Rather, the three novellas are simply fine tales, imbued with the dream of flying. The character of Maris, who holds the three parts together, is a fairly riveting one, and there can be few readers who will not become completely involved in her fortunes and adventures. And there are some other fine pieces of characterization as well, most notably that of Val One-Wing, the first graduate of the academies to achieve such brilliance that -- detest him and ostracize him though they might for his arrogance and his revolutionary ideas -- the flyers have no choice but to accept that he is qualified to be among their number. Take all these qualities together with the genuine exhilaration of some of the flight sequences (belying the rather tepid cover illustration) and you have a book that lacks anything that even looks like a dull moment, is usually very absorbing and is often genuinely moving.

Although the dust jacket is covered with quotes from the worthy saying how exquisitely beautifully the book is written, this is to overstate. Both Martin and Tuttle have always been good writers and both have in the two decades since become even better than that, especially Tuttle, but at the time when they wrote Windhaven they were still merely (merely!) at the "good" stage. There are one or two youthful clumsinesses on display here -- minor elements which occasionally disrupt the flow -- and it's surprising the two authors didn't take the chance to revise them for this reissue. Which is not at all to say that the book is in any way badly written: just that the text has its occasional ups and downs.

But that hardly matters. The emotional power of the underlying idea, the excellence of the characterization and the strength of the three stories' flow -- all go to make this a book much to be enjoyed.

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© John Grant 14 July 2001