Grass by Sheri S. Tepper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
According to the dominant, ruling religion, Sanctity, the plague doesn’t exist. Yet, people on every planet are dying from a virulent virus. Every planet, that is, except one, Grass, notoriously suspicious of anything or anyone coming from “elsewhere.” Desperate, the Hierarch sends his nephew Roderigo “Rigo” Yrarier and his family, Marjorie Westriding, Anthony, and Stella–even though they are Old Catholics–to learn what makes Grass different in the hopes of finding a vaccine or cure. As avid horse people, Sanctity believes, the Yrariers have the best chance possible of bonding with the bons, the Grass aristocracy, since the bons are obsessed with riding and hunting. They begin training with a riding master at a young age until they are ready to join the hunt.
As Rigo becomes ensnared in the local mania for the hunt, Marjorie, intuitive, wise, yet remote, seeks out answers that will save the universe. She befriends bon Sylvan bon Damfels, commoner, master carver Persun Pollut, and Sanctity penitents Brothers Mainoa and Lourai as she navigates the closed and secretive society of the bons. What she learns could save humanity–or hasten its demise.
Although the book started out slowly for me, and I worried about reading a book where a ritualized hunt was so dominant, I found that once Marjorie’s character was introduced, I became engrossed in the narrative. Underneath the compelling mystery of curing the plague lies a number of themes, many of which are echoed in Tepper’s other works. On Terra (earth), at least, governments are dominated by religious rule, certainly not to the benefit of women or lower socioeconomic classes, and the book challenges theocracy. Religion is also a means of reproducing patriarchy. As Father Sandoval councils Marjorie when she complains of Rigo’s infidelity, a wife’s obedience will solve problems in a marriage. Sanctity was completely devoid of women except as reproductive vessels. Brother Mainoa minces no words: “The shitheads are wrong…Not just a little bit wrong, but irremediably, absolutely, and endemically wrong.” While Grass is largely secular, tradition demands male dominance. In the book, men are driven to demonstrate their masculinity, as is evidenced by Rigo’s seduction to Hunt, but the costs are high. The book also criticizes those who endlessly debate ethical positions while failing to act and questions the limits of duty and mercy.
While some passages were slightly heavy-handed and the science was confusing (at least to me), I enjoyed reading the book once I got over my initial resistance. It’s definitely a must for those interested in feminist science fiction.