Liz Williams

Bantam / 352 pages / June 2001

ISBN: 0553583743

When the time came to compile the short-list for the Philip K. Dick Award for best original paperback, it was only right that The Ghost Sister was among the final six; a book that gives readers so much to think about should be rewarded. This novel has some bemoaning what they see as merely an exercise in political correctness and others singing the praises of a particularly intriguing piece of speculative fiction. Not only can you not please everyone, if you have, you’ve failed to strike a chord. Liz Williams doesn’t miss many possible chords in this debut novel.

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Four explorers from the exquisitely controlled planet of Irie St. Syre have arrived at the failed colony of Monde D’Isle to understand what went wrong and to bring their religion of Gaianism to any survivors they might discover. What they find should push that missionary position completely out of their minds, but three of the four are a stubborn and single-minded lot. It is only Shu Gho, the team’s tag-along author who will come to know the people of this “cursed” planet.

Eleres, Sereth, and Morrac are prime specimens of the dominant species on Monde D’Isle now, the Mordhaith — not human, not animal, driven by the ferocious bloodmind that sends them on the hunt, regardless of the creature that gets in the way. Eleres and the others’ bloodmind keeps them deeply connected to the planet, fanning out from each of their senses. Mevennen, Eleres’ frail sister, has never possessed the bloodmind; she is landblind and constantly made ill by the forces of nature. He is determined to cure his “ghost sister.”

When Eleres and Mevennen meet Shu Gho — who they believe is a ghost — she, too, becomes determined to help the girl. And here begins the conflict. Should the Mordhaith want to be rid of the bloodthirsty and feral sides of their personalities? Should the visitors do what they think will help, even if it means changing the Mordhaith forever, perhaps for the worse? (Don’t anyone even think Prime Directive. You know I don’t do tie-ins.)

The Ghost Sister operates on so many levels: social commentary, action/adventure, first contact, love story, cautionary tale. Williams’ use of alternating points of view brings each of the issues and that character’s own concerns sharply into focus. Moving from one perspective to another to observe the same scene provides a tremendously effective tool for highlighting the world of difference nature, nurture, and one’s own experience filter every event, word, and belief.

In the if-you-could category: it would have been interesting to get a clearer view of Irie St. Syre’s matriarchal society by including a male crew member in the exploration team. Is there equality? Are men treated as women were up until the latter part of the twentieth century? Maybe that’s beside the point, but the question is a persistent one.

If the thought of pondering some basic questions and beliefs doesn’t frighten you off, The Ghost Sister and the wild, cursed world of Monde D’Isle are just lying in wait for you. You’re ready, just keep your wits about you and your senses at their sharpest, because here, only the strong survive.