Godsfire, by Cynthia Felice – Book Review by Fred Patten.
Godsfire, by Cynthia Felice. Map.
NYC, Pocket Books, June 1978, paperback 0-671-81472-9 $1.75 (264 pages).
I am surprised by how many people have included this book’s cover by Boris Vallejo on their lists of “Only the worst Sci-fi/Fantasy book covers”, or “25 Worst Book Covers of All Time”, or “I Am Judging You By Your Cover” (16 book covers with snarky feminine hygiene comments). I could come up with at least twenty-five covers worse than this with no trouble. And to wax sexist for a moment, can any cover with a shapely naked cat-woman be really bad?
But this is a review of the novel, not its cover art. Planet of the Apes notwithstanding, 1978 was still before intelligent non-humans were common in science-fiction, judging from the book’s blurb: “Feline creatures in charge and humans as their slaves!”
Godsfire is narrated by Heao, the sixteen-year-old protégé of Academician Master Rellar on a planet inhabited by anthropomorphic felinoids. The opening pages make frequent mention of the characters’ sinuous tails, sharp claws, and other feline characteristics.
“I was prepared to leave, but the man had the most mischievous twinkle in his eyes that I’d ever seen. Then the tip of his tail began to twitch. Without the smiling eyes, that twitch would have warned of battle, but now I realized it was an invitation to play. I laughed.” “His boldness was nearly frightening, yet there was no malice in his eyes and his tail was coiled casually around his ice-laden coat.” “Baltsar delicately slit the belly of the choicest fish with his index claw, and, after a slave took away the entrails, he slivered the tender flesh for me.” “I speared a sliver with my eating claw and chewed gratefully.” “His tail was twitching again and he was smiling. Why had he ignored my shaking tail while we ate?” “I smiled, coiled my tail demurely about my waist, and said, ‘Thank you, Baltsar.’” (pgs. 4-8)
The “pale, furless” slaves are obviously humans, although in Heao’s people’s language the humans are the felinoids and the homo sapiens are just slaves. An advantage to their species is that they can see much better than the felinoids. They can see clearly the distant skybridge circling the world. Heao is a mapmaker proud of her charts, and is daring for her willingness to ask slaves for details of geography “farther than the eye can see” to put into her maps. Later differences between the two are that the felinoids have fur and twitching ears, that while they lack the far vision and color vision of the slaves, they have much better night vision, and that they curl up when they sleep while the slaves sleep lying straight because of their rigid spines.
A detail that is not elaborated upon at first is that the humans (felinoids) and slaves are physically compatible enough for bestiality, although it is socially taboo and the two are apparently not interfertile despite rumors of hybrid offspring.
To use an Earth parallel, the planet is just evolving from a feudal into a middle-class society. ”Since the recent war, foreigners were viewed with suspicion. Merchants were a new class among us, landless offspring of lowland nobles, dissatisfied craftspeople, refugees from the land-grabbing campaigns, trying to make livings in less troubled lands.” (p. 4) Heao’s mountainous tableland nation has just been conquered. “It was our terrible time, our being conquered by the lowland king, our own king reduced to a military prince, and our future uncertain. These things made us suspicious of the foreign merchant. Not only was he a lowlander and therefore suspect, but he was also without precedence. We had nobility, we had peasants, we had the temple and its guardians, and we had Academe, each filling a comfortable niche in our isolated mountains society. We didn’t have merchants and we are afraid of changes. But we were making changes despite our fears.” (p. 11)
Now that their conquest is wrapping up, Heao’s land is unhappily awaiting their King-conqueror’s tax collectors. Heao’s Master Rellar has a plan to forestall them:
“Baltsar, seeing the smile on my master’s lips, was immediately interested. ‘You have a plan?’
Rellar nodded. ‘If you agree, Heao will accompany you to the lowlands and present the King-conqueror with Academe’s tax.’ Rellar produced an oilskin packet from beneath his cape. The packet was of fine quality, sealed by Academe’s crest.
‘A map?’ Baltsar guessed.
‘Yes. The finest map in the kingdom … of only a small portion of his realm, but if he is as wise as is reputed, he will understand its value.’
Baltsar took the packet from Rellar’s hand. ‘I never heard of people setting their own tax, but I think you’re wise to try. I’ll deliver it.’ He was grinning at Academe’s impudence.
‘Heao must deliver it,’ Rellar said evenly.” (p. 14)
The rare slaves in Heao’s homeland are treated by their upper-class owners as dumb but valuable property. Heao’s first visit to the lowlands where slaves are common enough to be mistreated and discarded, and her observation during the trip of how Baltsar treats his slaves almost as equals, set up the summary in the blurb: “But the slaves have an intelligence of their own that clever Pathfinder Heao knows might one day be a threat to the masters’ power. She thinks the slaves have human qualities, and it is up to her to liberate them – before they revolt.” That, and Heao’s determination to find out just where the slaves have come from in less than a hundred years, are the plot.
But that is in the future. Heao’s purpose on the trip, besides journeying to present the map of her homeland to the King-conqueror, is to sketch the first good map of the road between her conquered homeland and the King-conqueror’s lowland capital. “Dutifully, I began marking the path we had followed. I knew the general shape of the entire way between the tableland city and the King-conqueror’s lowland city, for a friendly warrior had described it to the best of her recollection. Now I corrected her estimate of distance for the first twinight’s travel, sketched in landmarks, and estimated altitudes and degrees of the slopes. When it was finished, it would be the first accurate map of the land between our mountain province and the lowlands.” (p. 24) But talking with Baltsar and his obviously intelligent personal slave Teon makes her realize that a main reason for Baltsar’s mercantile success is his reliance on Teon’s farsightedness and other areas of superiority:
“‘I suppose we’ll have to wait for the slaves to tend their feet when they awaken.’ I was impatient; the night seemed so long.
‘No. Their skin isn’t the least bit tender. It’s probably tough because they have no fur. The worst I’ve ever seen on a slave’s feet was a few blisters. You have to use a knife to lacerate their skin.
‘They really are peculiar, aren’t they? I used to think they just looked strange. I mean, it’s weird to see a stocky, furless, but nearly human form. And their eyes are like plates! Some of them seem so prominent that I believe I could knock them off with a stick!’
Baltsar laughed. ‘You’ll forget their ugliness when you become accustomed to them. I don’t consider them grotesque any longer.’
‘Oh, really?’ I chided. ‘They walk as if they’ve swallowed broom handles.’
Baltsar’s feet were bare, so I took his brush to smoothe the fur on his legs and feet. I went no higher than was proper for a neighborly gesture, and I did it no longer than was proper, either.” (pgs. 25-26)
“Baltsar smiled. ‘Slaves talk of a place where godsfire burns the land dry.’
‘Godsfire on land!’ I said, immediately interested. ‘Where? Not the Evernight Mountains.’ Those were not well explored, nor were they completely unknown. ‘They aren’t mistaking volcanoes for godsfire, are they?’
He looked at me, no doubt thinking my interest was strange. ‘The old slaves claim their ancestors wandered into the Evernight Mountains in error. They say their true home was a dry region that is somewhere beyond the Evernights.’ He smiled at me in a patronizing fashion, which I didn’t like at all. ‘And, as if that story were not fantastic enough, they say that before living in the dry place, they came from the sky.’
‘Well, maybe they did. It corroborates the temple guardians’ visions of slaves having been sent down by the gods.’
He said nothing. I already knew what he thought of temple guardians’ visions.” (p. 32)
Heao delivers Academe’s packet to the King-conqueror without incident, although she finds him a more complex person than she expects. But the return journey includes the high-ranking temple guardian Tarana, who is terrified when she meets Heao because she recognizes the Pathfinder from her dreams as the one who is destined to bring down the gods’ wrath upon the empire. Back home, Heao soon attains her seventeenth birthday and becomes an adult.
The novel skips to highlights of the next eighteen years: Heao’s and Baltsar’s marriage and their having children; the business relationship that develops between Baltsar and the mountain province’s governor Prince Chel (who would be their king if their land had not been conquered); the social politics between Heao’s people and the lowlanders who pour into the mountain tablelands to stay and expand their city; Heao’s public espousement of the slaves as equals; and the increasing rivalry between Academe and the Temple guardians. Heao’s curiosity about the slaves’ physical nature results in her and Teon developing an intimacy.
Finally, a warming climate and the melting of mountain glaciers (and the flooding of Prince Chel’s quarries) leads Chel and Baltsar to plan an expedition into the newly accessible Evernight Mountains, supposedly for “scientific research” but actually for military conquest on Chel’s part and to find new sources of riches on Baltsar’s. Both feel that they need Heao for her pathfinding and mapmaking talents. She is feuding with Tarana, who has called for her public ostracism for promoting her forbidden beliefs of the equality of humans and slaves. All this takes Godsfire up to page 110. What forces Heao to join the expedition, and what they find in and beyond the mountains, makes the 154 remaining pages a rewarding read for Furry fans.
To return to the book’s cover, maybe the complaints against it are due to disappointment. There is no scene like it in the story. The text makes it clear that Heao is respectably clothed throughout.
This 1978 first edition and a 1982 reprint are long out of print, but Felice republished Godsfire as a Kindle book in March 2012 with a cover by Amy Sterling Casil. Decide for yourself whether this new cover is better than the “ugly” original.
– Fred Patten