Susan R. Matthews
Avon Eos / 288 pages / December 1999
Let’s get something straight right from the start: Avalanche Soldier is a complete departure from any Matthews novel you may have read. Andrej Kosciusko, the tortured torturer of her first three books has stepped aside for the moment. And the action has shifted from the reach of the universe to a single, snowbound planet.
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Salli Rangarold, avalanche soldier, lives and fights for the planet Creation — which may or may not be Earth… okay, it’s probably Earth. Whatever planet it may be, it is destined to be the only one the inhabitants of Creation will ever know. This is a future society where disease and the disastrous collapse of off-world colonies has driven humanity back to their home base. In the face of this disaster, religions have sprung up to fill the void, and the centre of their faith involves never taking to the air again. No planes, no helicopters, and certainly no spacebound craft. The plague was a clear sign that mankind was to stay put on Earth.
That sounds like a severe overreaction, not just to the reader, but to some of the other groups on Creation. Many want to take to the stars again. How far will they be willing to go to escape the restrictions? Is there a peaceful solution to the dispute? Matters appear very delicate at the moment; anything could upset the balance.
Salli’s loyalty and faith in the Orthodox states of Creation puts her solidly in the majority. Her rank in the Avalanche Soldiers places a burden of protection on her shoulders, along with the danger of keeping the passes clear. When her only remaining family appears to “defect” to the Heterodox Wayfarers, Salli has little choice but to follow. That decision will change her life and her beliefs forever.
A change of heart in this situation seems a small thing; the belief systems are intricate and, at some points, appear to differ only slightly. Religion is the most difficult aspect of Avalanche Soldier to get a handle on. It’s quite possible to come through the book without ever achieving a firm understanding of the opposing groups. At times, the distinctions are so small as to be trivial. At others, these subtle differences are enough to kill for. Come to think of it, that is sometimes the very nature of religion. And politics, which is what this dispute boils down to.
No, Avalanche Soldier is nothing like the Kosciusko novels. Is that bad or good? Many readers were extremely uncomfortable with the brutality in Matthews’ earlier works. Anyone who was “scared off” by the scenes of torture will find a more restrained violence in Avalanche Soldier; this is the ruthlessness of words and ideas, not drugs and agony of the body.
On the other hand, it was that very torment that made Kosciusko such a compelling character. Without those extremes, building a character is all the more difficult. Love or hate Salli, Meeka, and the rest of the people in this struggle, but you must do it on your own. The clues are not there for readers this time. Now, you’re really going to have to think. It’s for your own good.