[personal profile] snarp
The people of the icy planet Brakrath depend on the barohnas, a race of powerful psychics/witches/somethings, to bring the summer by melting the snow with their sunstones. Barohnas are long-lived and produce many daughters, one at a time; each one, when she is old enough, goes into the mountain with a spear and finds a beast to kill. If she kills her beast and survives, she will go through a physical transformation to become a barohna herself, depriving her mother of her power and taking it on for herself.

Most of a barohna's daughters die. Khira is the last daughter of the bahrona Tiahna, and is convinced that she will fail just like all of her sisters. Left alone in her mother's hall alone after her last sister's death, she finds a beautiful amnesiac boy abandoned in the cold by the crew of some spaceship. Feeling isolated and resentful of her own people, she decides that he'll keep her company for the winter; she names him Darkchild and alternately pampers him and harasses him. But Darkchild is controlled by a manipulative internal presence called a guide, and he becomes aware long before she does that he poses a threat to her.

Khira is very prickly, proud, and humorless; she thinks she has nothing in common with her mother, but the main difference I see between them is that Tiahna has mastered sarcasm. I assume it's like those abilities Pokemon can only learn after they've evolved to their final form. Khira's a refreshingly mean heroine.

Darkchild, on the other hand, is supernaturally pure; he actually makes friends with a unicorn at one point. (Well, you know, a space unicorn.) His guide, fretful and anal-retentive, is a more interesting character. Their dynamic makes more sense as it becomes clear that Darkchild and the guide are an artificially-induced multiple-personality system, manufactured en masse as spies. Darkchild is designed to be innocent and charming, and the guide to direct the gathering of information and protect Darkchild from any threats from which he's too gentle to save himself. This probably isn't the first ever instance of this plot device, but I think it's the earliest I've seen - the book came out in 1983.

The writing tends towards the purple, but never in a way that made me laugh at it; Brakrath's mythology feels sturdy even where it's not fully explained. van Scyoc clearly knew the rest of the story. Another place where the book is good is its generally unsentimental portrayal of Khira - she's frequently cruel or thoughtless, but still clearly admirable. The book forms a tidy emotional arc in itself, but some plot elements are left hanging. It's the first in a three-book series, and I clearly need to get the others. Apparently the second part of a barohna's life cycle involves soul-bonded lesbian lovers from whom they draw their power.
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