Author: Liz Williams
393 pages • £10.99
The assassin Vali Hallsdottir looks on at the lifeless, mutilated body of her mentor, Idhunn. Suspended between the horror and the need to bear witness, Vali can’t pull herself away from the “filleted corpse”. What exactly has occurred here? Who did this? And why? These are the questions of a gumshoe detective novel or a cheap whodunit, simple questions to set a plot moving. Except we’re in the Gothic future-world of a Liz Williams novel.
For the uninitiated, it’s a place of shifting perspectives and loyalties, of fighters with enhanced senses, of ravens that turn out to be not real birds but “metaphorical constructs carrying data”, a place where a bloody great ship, “perhaps a quarter of a mile from stern to prow”, can suddenly appear in the sea below, discharging enemies to take our protagonist prisoner. In précis, it may seem like an overly rich stew, but that’s rather the point. To play with that analogy, if Liz Williams were a casserole chef, she’d have a heavy hand with the garlic, onions, chili, ginger and some exotic spices you can only get in a stall tucked away in an obscure corner of an even more obscure market. But you’d certainly come back for seconds.
So it proves with Bloodmind. If its set-up is pure pulp fiction, Williams also throws in elements of horror, hard SF, fantasy and the techno thriller as we follow Vali’s quest to find Idhunn’s murderer. It’s an investigation of shifting allegiances and brittle alliances. The planet of Muspell, where most of the action takes place, is at war and soon Vali’s fate is linked with those of two people who should be her enemies, a military commander, Rhi Glyn Apt, and the vitki security officer, Thorn Eld.
If Bloodmind simply followed the fate of this mismatched trio, it would probably have enough forward trajectory to be a fascinating novel in itself, but Williams doesn’t settle there. Like its predecessor Darkland, which saw Vali raped and abused as she went about a killing mission on a fundamentalist planet, this is a novel that deals with gender politics. (Sometimes, it might be added, too obviously; there are a few moments when Williams throws in back-story exposition when tighter editing might have been more appropriate.)
While Williams is undoubtedly interested in the way men and women deal with each other, and the way men too often subjugate women, there’s also much here about how women relate to women. What kind of society, Williams asks through the character of Sedra, who lives in a tribe of outcasts, might women create freed of male influence? Don’t expect Utopia, but do expect better than the nightmare of women denied self-awareness that’s also explored here.
Connected loosely via genetic engineering, it’s a theme that in turn links to the book’s second overarching concern: the way we employ weapons against our enemies. If that in itself calls to mind Iain M Banks’ Use Of Weapons, it’s an entirely appropriate comparison. Like Banks, Williams isn’t particularly bothered about look-at-the-size-of-my-missiles issues when it comes to armaments, she wants to know about the (twisted) psychology of conflict – who, for example, would turn a woman into a weapon?
It’s a measure of Williams’s growing technical assurance as a writer that the answer to this central question is tied up with Idhunn’s gruesome slaying. It’s a further measure of her skill that Williams creates a killer who is both monster and wholly sympathetic.
This is a dark, occasionally difficult book, but confirmation, if any were really needed, that Williams is one of the most original and distinctive voices in British SF.