Slavery comes in many forms. Patience, the 13 year old protagonist of this novel, is a nominal slave to the Heptarch, ruler of this far-future world that was colonized by humans thousands of years ago. She is also the seventh seventh seventh daughter of the first Starship Captain, and as such is the subject of a prophesy declaring her to be either the savior or destroyer of the world. In the end, she is more slave to the prophecy than to the Heptarch.
Trained from birth in the arts of ruling and courtly intrigue, Patience is an intriguing character, whose real voyage of self-discovery starts with the death of her father. For this world has many different types of denizens that are almost human, gaunts, dwelves, and geblins. As Patience travels the world in search of the Unwyrm, she is forced to meet and interact with each of these races, and finding that each has their own right to life, their own ways of living, even if each of these races seems to be an incomplete copy of humans, and all are subject to overriding desires and commands that originate with the Unwyrm, the true slave-master of the world.
Card's themes of free will and moral imperatives to help others are nicely brought forward through his characters' interaction with each other, though at a couple places where he directly explicates some of this philosophy in the discourse of the giant Will, in comes across as a little bit preachy. The world and its biology is a fascinating if somewhat disturbing look at just what life really is, from the perspective of the genes, which folds into and on top of his free will ideas as a built in imperative that none may escape.
Some may find the climatic scene highly disturbing, involving rape, murder, and mental coercion in a manner normally considered well outside the pale of normal human actions, but it fits well with both story and theme. Card does not shirk from the implications of his prior story development, and a little reflection on this scene will convince you that this is truly the only way the problems could be resolved that was consistent with the theme Card is presenting, but I do feel that this scene makes this book highly inappropriate for younger readers.
But Card fell down a little bit in his conclusion, his continuation of the story after that climatic scene, as it comes across as almost sugar-sweet after all the grimness of the rest of the book, as it proposes an extremely optimistic viewpoint about basic human nature that just doesn't fit. Also a little bit disappointing was the final disposition of the brother-sister gebling kings, as this did not seem to be quite in character for either of them.
Some truly original ideas, some decent characters, but in the end I felt the theme came to over-dominate the story, left me with less emotional involvement than was possible, became too much an intellectual probing. Still, worth reading, if only to see what Card can do outside of the Ender series.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)