Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Derring-do or derring-don't?

kw: book reviews, fantasy, psionics

Dee Dee Myers would love it. In the world Dave Duncan created, women really do rule. Upon the development of psychic powers, women gained the upper hand and took over. Now the "nobles" carefully breed for ever-increased powers. In Ill Met in the Arena, men's powers are in the realm of male interests: transportation (via porting) and the heavy lifting (hefting), with minds stronger than their bodies. Women have cornered the market on political acumen, and their powers are the trump cards: reading minds and projecting speech (conveying), so nobody can lie in their presence.

A woman can, with a touch, plumb the depths of a man's mind, and should she desire, change it, very literally. Women are responsible to, if needed, "improve" a man, from a minor attitude adjustment, to major personality overhaul, to lobotomy, to catatonia. In this world it is truly dangerous to touch a woman.

The Arena provides a place for the men to blow off steam. Psionic contests are frequently held, almost daily somewhere or other. But in the place of a small number of professional teams, these venues provide a structured means for any man of noble birth to show his mettle.

In all this, "ordinaries" live lives that are little better than slavery, though this issue is sidestepped in the book. It is a feudal society, but imagine the life of serfs who know that any man with even a smidgen of "noble" powers can kill instantly, from a moderate distance, and any noblewoman can, with a touch, "improve" a man beyond recognition.

Yet things are never so simple. Not all women are capable of or willing to enforce the rules and laws that hold their society together, and a family of psychopaths has hidden crimes that are gradually revealed, culminating in a mental contest between men that, had the right guy been "improved" a couple generations back, never would have been born.

The politics of the story are convoluted, but no more so than those found in any ingrown society from the Byzantines to the Amish. Side details—a completely different calendric system, the complexities of time under a double sun, and the logistics of very rapid transportation aided by porters—make for a fascinating milieu, a place I've enjoyed visiting.

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