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The Wilding by C. S. Friedman

Cover art by Michael Whelan

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When In Conquest Born was published in 1987, it was presented as a stand-alone novel, and given the astonishing revelation of the final documentary chapter, there really didn't seem to be many places to be gone with the story. For almost two decades the author worked on other projects, steadfastly resisting the urgings of fans who wanted to make another visit to a fascinating universe rich in cultural detail.

In 2004 C. S. Friedman finally brought out a new novel of the endless war between Azea and Braxi. Two centuries have passed since the catastrophic destruction of Llornu and the death of most of the Star Empire's telepaths, a covert mission masterminded by Braxana genius Zatar the Magnificent and blamed on Anzha lyu Metithe, the genius military commander of Azea. Braxi and its Holding are still ruled by a descendent of Zatar, but all is not well. There is a genetic weakness in Zatar's line that causes one after another of them to go mad and die prematurely, and the result has been the ascension of an heir hardly beyond the age of manhood, a mere stripling despised by the proud and ambitious leaders of his race.

And it is little wonder, for the Braxana have fallen upon desperate times. Like the Spartiates, the ruling elite of ancient Sparta, their numbers have dwindled through inbreeding until they are in danger of dying out altogether. Only rigorous censorship, enforced if necessary with brutal reprisals against the homeworlds of those who dare break the secret, keeps the ordinary people of the Holding from realizing just how narrow the margin is by which their overlords hold power. Unlike the Spartiates, the Braxana are not so rigidly wedded to the principle of strict endogamy that they cannot reconsider it. In hopes of bringing new genes into the Braxana genepool they have revived an ancient tribal tradition called the Wilding, by which a man or woman travels outside the tribal territory to seek a mate. In its new incarnation, the Wilding allows someone who is in legal or financial trouble to depart the Holding, to be permitted readmittance only upon the abduction of a woman of suitable genetic qualities to bear Braxana children, who will enjoy all the rights and privleges of a purebred Braxana.

The law reviving the Wilding was intended to be restricted to Braxana alone, but its framers were careless in its wording and did not explicitly state any tribal qualifications. And that proves quite useful for the protagonist, who is in trouble for illegal tribal activities.

Officially the Braxana alone have maintained their tribal distinctiveness, and all the other tribes that once made up the population of Braxi have been absorbed into an amorphous "common Braxin" people. But in fact at least one tribe has maintained its identity in secret. Like the Braxana, the Kesserit were steppe barbarians, proud and fierce, and they have maintained their traditions of choosing their leaders through duels to the death, a tradition which Tathas is honoring on the night that he and the other leaders of the Kesserit are betrayed to the Braxana.

Suddenly imprisoned and on trial for his life, he finds his only hope in claiming the right to a Wilding of his own, an idea suggested to him by the half-Braxana woman K'teva, whose position among the Kesserit is rather murky. When he insists that he must not be a coward and flee, she convinces him that it is far more important to recoup the position of the Kesserit than to become a martyr for a scattered people bereft of leadership.

Only then does he agree to this desperate venture and make his way to the outermost systems of the Holding with the vague notion of somehow finding a descendant of Harkur, the original unifier of Braxi. Except the last known descendent of Harkur was none less than Anzha lyu Metithe, Azean Starcommander, telepath, and sworn enemy of all things Braxin. A woman who vanished without a trace two centuries ago when confronted with the truth of her heritage shortly after the destruction of the world of Llornu and the slaughter of so many of the telepaths.

And that search leads him straight on a collision course with another searcher, Zara, a woman of Chandra, a world in the Azean Star Empire. When a routine request for her genefile after an injury is denied, she begins an investigation that reveals not only that she bears the genetic grouping for telepathy, but also had an identical twin sister who was kidnapped shortly after birth. All this has been concealed from her as a result of the Star Empire's fear of psychics, which has been further stoked by a series of kidnapping of identical twin babies, very likely for some kind of experiment in distinguishing the roles of heredity and environment in the development of psychic powers.

Zara's search for her twin sister leads her not only to Rho, but to the entire shadowy organization of telepaths which has raised her and trained her to be a Shaka, the semi-legendary telepath with the ability to forcibly enter another's mind and turn it against its owner. When Anzha lyu Metithe fled the Star Empire, she founded a secret organization of telepaths which has spent the last two centuries sowing the stars with the seeds of Braxi's destruction. After the horror of Ceylu's destruction, they know they cannot raise any planet so quickly that its technology will become noticible to Braxi, for that will simply ensure they will crush it. Instead they plant legends and superstitions in a thousand primitive cultures (think the Missionaria Protectiva in the original Dune) and keep just enough watch upon them that they will simultaneously serve as an early-warning system for unexpected Braxin activity and ensure that Braxin attempts to expand in that direction will become bogged down crushing the persistent resistance of a vast number of planets, so many they cannot simply be wiped clean of life.

And best of all, the leader carries as a sacred relic a nullentropy vial containing the genetic material of Anzha lyu Metithe. Although she never had children in her lifetime, and although the Braxana normally reject advanced genetic technology, Azean science may well be able to produce viable ova from it. And that material is what Tathas hopes will be able to take him back home to Braxi. For he has his own vendetta against the Braxana, and he wants nothing more than to see their hold on Braxi disrupted sufficiently that the Kesserit and those other tribes who have preserved some fragment of their identity can reassert themselves once more and perhaps even end the dominance of the Braxana. Convinced that his Wilding can be used as a sort of Trojan Horse to lay their own strike against the heart of the Holding, a decapitation strike against its leader, the last scion of the fragile House of Zatar, Tathas heads home.

Except that the psychics aren't the only people who are using Tathas for their own purposes. K'teva wasn't just thinking about the future of the Kesserit people when she convinced him to invoke the Wilding and leave the Holding. Far from it, she had very definite plans for her own advancement, arranging a bargain with the highest leadership of the Braxana by which she would manipulate Tathas' Wilding to prove her own fitness to become the mother of children of the Braxana tribe. Except her plans are on a direct collision course with those laid by Rho and the other psychics, and K'teva's ability to gain her goals will depend entirely on her ability to navigate the subtleties of Braxana culture.

Unfortunately, the final-chapter revelation in this novel is not quite up to the level of the original in forcing us to reconsider what we think we know about the relationship between Azea and Braxi. In the original, Dyle's lost diary reveals a genetic relationship born of love that would later seem impossible, given the depth of the hostility between the two peoples. But this revelation of conspiracy seems far too reminiscent of Realpolitik maneuverings between superpowers to keep the level of hostility within control because each side has a vested interest in the other's existence that cannot be admitted publicly because it is at variance with the propaganda image that must be maintained for the ordinary citizenry. To be true, the original novel was written back in the days when there was still a Soviet Union and the Cold War was a very real presence in our lives, yet somehow it seems vaguely disconcerting to see echoes of Cold War secret maneuvering presented as a great revelation that's supposed to redefine our understanding of everything that's gone on in the novel.

On the whole it is an enjoyable read with some edge-of-the-seat moments. However, it it is almost entirely straight narrative, without the chapters that are presented as documents written by various characters within the story world, which results in less of the depth and complexity that marked In Conquest Born. In addition, while the first book was complete unto itself, this book really cries out for a third volume. Yes, Tathas and Zara have successfully completed their story arcs, but they are not really at rest, not to mention that Braxin society has been struck such a blow that we are left tormented with curiosity as to how it will work out.

Review posted Feburary 1, 2009.

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