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Empire of Bones
Liz Williams
Bantam, 336 pages

Empire of Bones
Liz Williams
Liz Williams has spent most of her life in academic philosophy. She did a doctorate in epistemology of science at Cambridge. Today, she works in the field of educational consultancy, bringing students from Central Asia to study in Britain. The Ghost Sister is her first novel.

Liz Williams Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Liz Williams
SF Site Review: The Ghost Sister

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

When Empire of Bones opens, Jaya Nihalani is having hallucinations, and she doesn't welcome them. Strange visions caused her rapid rise from a poor conjurer's daughter to a wealthy guru and then to a revolutionary Bandit Queen. But all that's over now. Her guerrilla movement has been crushed and Jaya, only in her twenties, is crippled with premature aging, the victim of a new disease called Selenge which is decimating the untouchable caste in 2030's India.

But the visions, unexpectedly, are real and are Jaya's salvation. She has been chosen as the "Receiver," sole human contact for all communication with an advanced alien race whose ship is entering orbit around Earth. The Americans are furious -- why would an alien race contact some powerless woman in India instead of sending an emissary to Washington, DC?! The Bharat government is no less furious to have to deal with a notorious Marxist troublemaker they had hoped to execute.

And Jaya is deeply suspicious. The aliens hold out all sorts of promises, including a cure for Selenge. But why should she trust them?

"The British, the Americans, aliens, whatever. They all made promises. They all lied."
A parallel plot thread follows politicking among individuals in the galaxy-spanning caste-based alien society. Sirru, a lower caste mediator, has been called to Earth to communicate with Jaya. But Sirru begins to suspect that members of the 'khaithoi' elite intend to sabotage his mission and destroy Earth.

This is a terrific plot for a fascinating novel, which nonetheless has a lot of flaws. The most critical, for me, was missing that odd sense of disorientation I get when reading books from another culture. For all her effort in building convincing characters and settings, Liz Williams is a Westerner writing about India. Jaya's narration has all the notes, without the music.

Creating convincing aliens is tough, too. Still, Williams gives it a good shot. Her caste-bound individuals, communicating by pheremonal signals and scent, form an interesting counterpoint to the structure and corruption of Indian society.

Finally, the story momentum lags somewhat in the second half of the novel and the resolution is not entirely satisfying. Nonetheless, I stayed glued to this book, intrigued to see what would happen next.

Empire of Bones is an admirably ambitious novel, well worth reading for its attempt to put a unique cultural spin on the shopworn first contact story. It earns a place of honour on my bookshelf and I'll be looking for more from Liz Williams.

Copyright © 2003 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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