by Stephen Leigh

Avon Eos


331pp/$3.99/March 1998

Dark Water's Embrace

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Although Stephen Leigh's novel Dark Water's Embrace is the story of settlers on a new world, Mictlan, the focus of the book is less on the frontier mentality or exploration than it is on survival.  Mictlan was settled about a century before the novel opens, but an explosion on the starship which brought the colonists to the new world meant that only nine people survived.  Of those nine, one was a lesbian, which further depleted the gene pool.  Since that time, a complex social structure has evolved among the survivors and their descendents.

The majority of the book is spent examining the society the humans have established on Mictlan, although Leigh does include a few tangents such as Anais Kode-Levin's, his main character,  examination of the remains of one of the extinct Miccail, the race native to the planet.  Other tangents are flashbacks to a period when the Miccail still roamed the planet and the diaries of Gabriela Rusack, the lesbian member of the original settlers.

Leigh portrays the interactions between the colonists in an interesting manner, relating most of the story through the eyes of Anais Kode-Levin, one of the colonists' doctors who suffers from a strange mutation (as do most of the colonists, although Anais's is stranger than most).  Her standoffishness has removed her from the center of the colonists' activities, and her few friends are warning her from the beginning that she is in danger of being cast out of the community.  Because Anais is a specialist, Leigh is never really able to give a complete view of what day-to-day life on Mictlan is like.   There are occasion views of the other settlers hunting or working the fields, but for the most part, Anais and her companions are sequestered from such everyday concerns.

What is apparent is that Mictlanese society revolves are sex, or at least reproduction.   Because of the small numbers in the colony, woman, who can breed children, are considered to be more important than men.  Women are expected to have as many children as possible by as many men as possible in an attempt to increase the colony's numbers and chance of survival.  Working against this are a high infant mortalit rate (children do not receive names until their first birthdays) and an increase in the mutation rate, which appears common on Mictlan.

While Leigh's setting is interesting, the plot moves slowly.  Leigh also hints at several plotlines which he never fully explores.  Unfortunately, many of these appear as if they would be more interesting than the main story.  The humans on Mictlan are amazingly bereft of any desire to explore their surroundings or the past of the planet, a lack which Leigh explains by the difficulties of life there.  The clues he provides, and the fact that Anais, her lover Elio Allen-Shimmura and others attempt to delve into those mysteries, gives the reader the false hope that the novel will provide more answers than it does.  However, Dark Water's Embrace is the first of a series (continued in Speaking Stones), which does hold out hope that Leigh will eventually allow his characters to discover more of the world around them.

The culture which Leigh builds is well thought out and, although based on human society, it differs from any societies which exist on earth.  Leigh shows people coming to terms with a difficult situation as well as the power that peer pressure has, especially in small groups.  He sets this society on an interesting world which was once populated by aliens with a very different outlook on life and civilization which, while not as complete as the human society, shows signs of its own complexity.

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