The first in a duology of dark SF books.

Publication year: 2006
Format: print
Page count: 424
Publisher: TOR

The book has only two POV characters and one of them is in the first person, Vali Hallsdottir. The chapters with POV characters alternate. It’s set in the far future where humans have colonized many planets and have done genetic engineering on both the alien plants and animals, and on themselves.

Vali is a spy and assassin for the Skald, an intelligence organization of (mostly) women on the planet Muspell. Vali’s from the North and she’s a tracker in addition to the skills the Skald taught her. At the start of the book, she’s on an undercover mission on the planet Nhem. Nhemish society centers on a religion which states that women are animals and filth. They also have a breeding program and genetic engineering program which are trying to make women not sentient. Meanwhile, the women have to wear covering clothing and men can’t even address them directly in public, or private presumably. Therefore, a woman is the prefect choice to assassinate Nhem’s sadistic leader, the Hierolath. Vali has to endure a rape to get to the Hierolath but she kills him. After that, the problems start. She came to the planet with a male partner but he’s not in the agreed upon place and her pick-up ride is also late. She barely makes it off the planet. Then, she hears that the male partner was not who she thought he was; he’s Fray, Vali’s former lover and mentor but, disguised in such a way that she didn’t recognize him.

Vali had a bad childhood; her brother raped her and her family refused to talk about it. When she was working as a tracker, Fray engaged her as his apprentice, and his lover. Unfortunately, he also broke her mentally and it has taken Vali a long time to heal. Now, she has to confront Fray again.

Meanwhile, on planet Mondhile a young man Ruan hears a human cry from the forest and decides to investigate. He finds a mysterious and seductive young woman. She visits his room one night and has sex with him, although it seems that she does it more out of desire to control Ruan than any desire. Afterwards, Ruan is determined to find her again even though the clan elder warns him to stay away. Ruan is injured but the mysterious woman and her brother rescue him and bring him to a tower built in the middle of a pool of dark energy. He knows that he should leave the tower and the woman but he just can’t.

Darkland has clashing societies and ponders the use of sex as a weapon. The societies are quite different from each other. On the planet Muspell, there are actually two societies which seem polar opposites of each other. Darkland, on the southern hemisphere, seems to be a society based on oppression with men holding the power. Vali’s homeland seems to be more equal and their intelligence service is run mostly by women. The Skald also seem spiritual; through meditation they are able to control an inner power called the seith through which they can sense others and have mental shields. The Darkland agents we see seems to use genetic engineering to get their powers to persuade and affect other people.

In contrast, Ruan’s culture seems quite primitive; they are hunters and keep herd animals. At first the culture doesn’t seem very different from a hunter/herder society (although that seems a bit weird for a spacefaring society) but then we find out that it is different. Very. It’s also a more gender equal society where women appear to be the primary hunters.

Vali used to be a confident woman before she met Fray. Now, she sometimes doubts herself especially with anything to do with Fray. However, she’s determined to get past Fray and live as she wants to. She has also lost one eye and has deep scars because a fenris attacked her. She’s convinced that no man will ever want her because of the scars.

Idhunn is Vali’s mentor in the Skald. Idhunn is a older woman whom Vali can confide in and talk matters over with. I really enjoyed their friendship which is pretty rare in books, let alone in SF.

This is an intense, if dark, book with damaged main characters who try to deal with their mental and physical wounds. There’s rape and torture but it’s not gratuitous.

There are a few dangling plot lines but except for the epilogue, this could be read as a stand-alone.