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The Ghost Sister by Liz Williams
(Bantam Spectra, $5.99, 338 pages, paperback, July 2001, ISBN: 0553583743.)

The first thing to say about The Ghost Sister is that the concept is quite breath-taking in its elegance. The reader has a sense of this quite early on, but it becomes crystal clear on reaching the end. The novel is also beautifully written, with engaging characters, and it confounds expectations while at the same time surpassing them.

An expedition arrives on a colony world, Monde D'Isle. Their mission: to discover the fate of colonists sent long ago to terraform the inhospitable world. Colonists whose last transmission spoke of a world cursed. The expedition finds that the descendants of the original colonists, the Mondhaith, are hugely changed; possibly as a result of natural evolution, possibly through deliberate genetic (or other) manipulation. The expedition aim to complete the work, to tame the climate and to convert the Mondhaith to the "Gaian" philosophy, but the implications of this gradually dawn on them.

The first few pages of the book are something of challenge, strange place names and character names come thick and fast. As do hints regarding the strange nature of the Mondhaith. There is talk of migration and hibernation; first glimpses of an animalistic nature, unrepressed sexuality, and a complex social structure. In less capable hands this could have been off-putting, but within a very few pages Williams has pulled you in.

Eleres is concerned for his sister, Mevennen, who has been ill for a long time, her condition now deteriorating further. She is landblind, a "ghost", meaning that she is out of balance with the world, not at one with it. Unlike the majority of her kind, she cannot sense the presence of water and metals in the land, or rather she senses them so powerfully that she is "deafened" by the roar. She is weak and her people, even her closest family, have a bloodlust that drives them to kill the weak. Yet despite such primal urges, her family has protected her. And now, Eleres decides he must take his ghost sister away to the south in desperate hopes that Mevennen's condition may improve there.

Thus within a very few pages the reader is embroiled in a complex world and involved with Eleres's family. The narrative is told from various viewpoints. Williams devotes the most time to a first-person narration by Eleres. But many chapters are told from the perspective of Mevennen, or of Shu Gho from the expedition. The perspective is helpfully indicated at the beginning of each section, and while I might have expected to favour one character over another, in fact I found that I enjoyed each viewpoint equally.

The Mission (the name given to the expedition to emphasise its evangelical nature) has come from Irie St Syre where the inhabitants have a supposedly Gaian philosophy, meaning that they believe in living in harmony with their world. But do they? Or have they adapted their world to be in harmony with themselves? The Mission is led by Dia who is intent on establishing the same system of values on Monde D'Isle. But they learn that the Mondhaith have found an altogether different approach to living in harmony with their world. One that the Mission initially consider barbaric, but gradually doubt and dissension grows among them.

Having been hugely impressed with the opening, I became slightly impatient in the second quarter of the book. Based on the author's short fiction, I had high expectations for the prose itself. Liz Williams really can write. But the prose here seemed slightly subdued. A section where Eleres travels by boat to the port of Tetherau drags on for too many pages with nothing much happening.

However, I got what I wanted, and then some, in the second half of the book. A funeral scene is beautifully written. After which, Williams seems to step up a gear; as if she suddenly gained in confidence. The story is then gripping through to the end, beautifully told with extravagant descriptive passages. All the pieces of her puzzle fall into place in satisfying fashion. Only then do you fully realise, how very elegant the whole has been.

The inhabitants of Monde D'Isle, taken at face value, would not be out of place in any generic fantasy novel. But the expedition team are very definitely characters of science fiction, and the conflict between the two camps could be considered analogous to the conflict between the science fiction and fantasy genres. This is a novel that is eminently marketable as either, and yet slightly subversive at the same time. Williams plays mischievously with the expectations of the reader. Not just in terms of genre - the Mondhaith society is a fascinating melting pot of social and sexual attitudes and ideas.

Williams has interesting things to say about the way one society perceives another. And how seeing another's perception of yourself brings new insight into your own nature. She doesn't balk at throwing in some proper science fiction, nor does she neglect to tell a grand mythic fantasy story, complete with girl in high tower.

It could be argued that the book would have benefited from a touch more action; certainly much of the story is revealed through dialogue. But on the other hand, it's such a pleasure to read a book where characters have something to say. I also feel that a momentous event, the death of a major character, is dealt with too fleetingly. And there are some aspects that could have been expanded upon further, the "Gaian" philosophy of Irie St Syre, for example. But these are quibbles.

The Ghost Sister is a thoughtful, absorbing novel with fully realised characters and dramatic descriptive passages, intelligently staged by an exceptional writer. I was very moved by the ending. A brief epilogue is just perfect. Not wanting the book to be over, I immediately went back to the beginning and re-read the prologue. I could quite happily have continued on and read the book again. But I shall save that treat for another day.

Review by Chris Butler.

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© Chris Butler 22 September 2001