Karen Lord's amazing new novel The Best of All Possible Worlds includes a lot of visits to wildly different cultures on an alien planet, where lots of offshoots of the endangered Sadiri race have extreme mental and telepathic powers. But what happens when some of those telepathic aliens decide to create their own fairie kingdom? A whole lot of social awkwardness and weirdness, that's what.
Check out an exclusive excerpt from Best of All Possible Worlds — which is io9's book club pick for March!
Her hair was a cloud of silver foam growing back from her temples in tiny soft curls, then expanding up and out in fierce glory. Few crowns of the traditional mold could encompass it, but none was necessary when diamonds of all colors, rose and white and gold, sparkled freely throughout her tresses, transforming the cloud to a starry nebula. Her eyebrows were golden and perfectly shaped, each one a gentle, delicate arc. Dark pupils stood out starkly in sea- gray irises; long, light brown eyelashes framed all with a sleepy sultriness. Her look was forgiving of the ordinariness of others and understanding of their natural desire to adore her. Slender limbs made her sprawl elegant; the very fineness of her bones drew the eye along her lines and subtle curves. Her skin defied common sense; it combined translucency with an amber tint, revealing an intricate tracery of blood vessels under the paler skin of her inner arm. She would have made an artist weep for shame that neither brush nor tint could do her justice.
A catalog of my own flaws began to scroll through my mind. The uneven texture of my hair, whose inability to decide whether to curl or ripple meant that a crew cut was the best out of a bunch of bad options. The mundane brown of that same hair. Flat, broad eyebrows strongly marking my face, eyes that needed the help of kohl to become remarkable. Thick bones and muscles that spoke of sturdiness rather than grace — ha, the irony! Cedarbrown skin that might have been just acceptable if it hadn't been for the faint dusting of freckles across my nose and cheeks.
Ah, there. I consoled myself. We had very much the same nose, a happy medium that was neither big nor small, broad nor pointed, just well proportioned and joined harmoniously to the forehead with a gentle dip. I held on to the image of my nose and tried to feel confident as I looked down it at her — insofar as it is possible to look down at someone seated on a throne elevated on a dais.
"The Tlaxce Visiting Mission of the Central Government of Cygnus Beta thanks Your Majesty for her kind invitation and wishes to avail itself of the opportunity to renew to the Seelie Court the assurances of its highest consideration."
The impressive part wasn't the high diplomatic language. It was the fact that I was able to resurrect enough of my Cymraeg to say this without pause or stammer.
The Faerie Queen inclined her head graciously. "Be welcome," she said.
It had been blissfully mundane for almost three weeks, exactly what I needed after the excitement of waterfall jumping. We had flown the shuttle south and made our way across open farmland, visiting settlements with scant humanity and an overabundance of ruminants. I might have glanced once or twice at the gray edge of wooded hills to the west. I might even have wondered a little, but when Qeturah told me that we had obtained clearance to go to Faerie, my immediate reaction had been that it was a Bad Idea with a capital B I, because I was damned if I was going to explain to the Sadiri how a community of their people had ditched their own culture wholesale to actualize an obscure Terran myth. But I was stuck with the job, so I went ahead and tried my best.
"Reports are sketchy. Faerie has been closed for more than a century, because visitors tended to treat it a bit like a theme park." Smart visitors, I thought cynically to myself. "But they say that for centuries the land was populated by two taSadiri clans who were constantly at war with each other. They had endured a particularly bad run of hostilities when a strange Cygnian turned up with an intriguing solution to their problem. Since the main cause of their war was the question of which clan's rituals and dialect should take precedence, the compromise was for both clans to learn an entirely new identity."
Tarik was utterly disbelieving. "This makes no sense. Do you mean to tell me that two taSadiri tribes abandoned millennia of tradition for a society drawn from folktales and fictional writings?"
"I'm afraid so," I said, trying not to smirk at his appalled expression.
As a belief, it was rather seductive, actually. Long- lived, superior, and mentally dominant over the weaker Terrans, the Elves were clearly an indication of some covert pre- embargo Sadiri visit to Terra. If you're out of your skull, that is.
"Who was the Cygnian who told them this?" asked Dllenahkh.
"Some crackpot academic descended from the Druids of Ynys Môn who made it his business to know all ancient and modern manifestations of Celtic culture. They say his forefathers founded New Camelot. I don't know. Frankly, I find it all a bit silly, but they've heard about us and they've invited us, and we can't very well say no."
Fortunately, I had set their expectations so low that when the shuttle set down on the bald brow of a tree- ringed hill, we were relieved to be greeted by ordinary Cygnians dressed in contemporary attire and with only slightly glossy hair, drawn up in a welcoming party around the Queen's throne. They did, however, hold firmly to their own language, and until Tarik could get a translation program up and running, that meant yours truly was the main conduit of communication on our end.
The Faerie Queen was eloquent but slightly insane, and this made translation difficult. After descending the dais to greet the Commissioner gravely, she turned her attention to the rest of the team as introductions were made. Initially, she nodded perfunctorily at each name, but then she began to walk among us, her slender height both imposing and fragile. Lian earned a lingering look, Nasiha another grave nod, but at Fergus she stopped and considered. With a sideways glance at Qeturah, she murmured, "Probably hers," and went to Joral. Taking the poor young man by the chin, she examined him and proclaimed, "Young," before moving on to Tarik. Nasiha, who was quicker on the uptake than the rest of us, seized her husband's hand and stared challengingly at the woman, who merely smiled and came to stand before Dllenahkh. Keeping her gaze on him, she beckoned me over.
"You represent the newly arrived Sadiri on Cygnus Beta?" she asked him.
I translated, and Dllenahkh nodded. "I do, Your Majesty."
She was perhaps three centimeters taller than he was, not counting the fifteen centimeters that was hair alone, but he was three times broader and just as self- possessed. She suddenly smiled brilliantly, as if deigning to recognize him as an equal.
"I will speak to you," she declared. "You," she addressed me, still without looking at me, "will translate. The rest of you are granted the freedom of the Seelie Court until our discussions are completed."
I repeated this in Standard for the benefit of the team, looking anxiously at Qeturah. She smiled reassuringly, but her eyes signaled caution as she said, "Tell her that in accordance with government practice we would be happy to set up shelter near the shuttle."
The Queen was appalled at the idea. "Nonsense!" she said, looking at Qeturah as if she were both mad and discourteous. "It is far too dangerous to stay on the ground at night. We have prepared lodgings for you."
Qeturah's gaze followed her pointing hand, looking up walkways into the heights of huge trees where wooden platforms spanned branches and surrounded trunks in a vast tree city. "Thank her kindly for us, First Officer Delarua," she said somewhat breathlessly.
Our platform — or t'bren as they called it — had no barrier rails, something that seemed to worry no one but us, but they did offer us rope netting to string over and around our bedding, perhaps as a deterrent to sleepwalking. I was careful with mine that first night, hooking it securely to a branch above and tucking it under the bedding. This made waking up suddenly at midnight even more exciting as I promptly got tangled up in the mesh.
"What is it? What's happened?" I whispered frantically as I unknotted myself.
Fergus's deep murmur was slow and calming. "Someone's trying to break into the shuttle. Lian and I are going to check it out."
I hesitated, then flung off the netting with one final effort and felt my way to the edge. A hand rested warningly on my back, another hand muffled my start at a scream, and a voice whispered in Cymraeg, "Stay."
It was likely someone we'd met during the day, but the night was dark and all faces dim. Probably the only person who'd stand out would be the Queen, with her bright hair.
"What is it?" I whispered. "Do you know?"
"Unseelie," came the whispered answer.
For a moment I was baffled, and then I grimaced. "Ah. The bad guys."
"Yes. They rule the land at night and go underground at dawn. They do not come up to our treetops, and we do not descend to their caves. Thus we preserve some measure of peace."
"I thought the whole point of becoming Elves was to stop the conflict."
The hand on my back shifted as if vibrating with laughter. "I will tell you about it tomorrow. It makes a good tale."
"Who are you? How will I know you in daylight?"
"I am the teller of tales and singer of songs. You will make a good song, I can feel it. Which one is yours?"
Disjointedness of thought and speech seemed to be an Elvish trait, but I understood when a shadowy hand waved to the rest of the group, who were awake and quietly talking into comms and to one another. "Tarik and Nasiha are husband and wife. The rest — we belong only to ourselves."
"Ah." There was a hint of laughter in that response, and I wondered too late how strong these Elves were in telepathy and empathy. I sat up and put some distance between myself and the strange Elf with his overly friendly hand.
"Here come your guards," said the storyteller- singer, and there indeed were Fergus and Lian returning.
"Perimeter alarms scared them off," said Fergus. "Someone tried a light mental tweak on us, but it didn't take."
I quickly explained the little I had just learned.
"That's not reassuring," said Qeturah, a frown in her voice. "Remember the legend of faerie glamour? Let's stay together as much as possible and be on the alert for influence."
With the immediate danger over, the Sadiri soon composed themselves to rest with their usual economy of fuss. Qeturah drew Lian aside for a quiet conference. There was little chance of my getting to sleep in a hurry, what with all the adrenaline of the past few minutes, so I shifted a little closer to Fergus. He was putting away some of his gear and politely ignoring me, as usual. I'd long ago figured out that for a man like Fergus, a man who shunned unnecessary talk, I was a walking nightmare.
"I'm a bit surprised," I began, adjusting my voice to copy his measured cadence, hoping not to startle or vex him. "Some of the taSadiri we've encountered . . . well, it's one thing not to have the mental disciplines, but they seem almost . . . uncivilized."
There was a silence as he paused for a moment in his work. "Are you joking?" he said at last, sounding wary.
I was baffled. "No. What did I say?"
"They've got all kinds of ways to reform criminals now, but what do you think the Sadiri used to do with their delinquents in the old days?"
I was struck mute. The concept of a lawbreaking Sadiri had not even crossed my mind. The perpetual stereotype of the judging, superior Sadiri was too strong, even in me.
"They used to ship them off- planet, fast and far. A lot of their so- called science outposts and religious retreats were nothing more than places to dump undesirables, people who didn't quite fit in. Worked out for the best, ironically. Pity the demographics are so skewed."
I exhaled very slowly. "You're telling me that of the Sadiri who survived, there are diplomats and judges, pilots and scientists, nuns and monks . . . and jailbirds?"
"Yep. Almost makes you laugh, doesn't it?"
I felt a bit foolish. Fair enough; it was Cygnian culture and language that was my speciality, but I had begun to pride myself on becoming a bit of an expert in Sadiri matters over the past few months. "How do you know all this?" I asked resentfully.
"Used to work in Galactic Patrol," he replied. "Been far and wide myself, even as far as Ain. Lots of interesting tales about how Ain got founded, but I think it's obvious."
"You do?" I thought I knew what he was going to say. Political differences arise, conflict follows, and the more adventurous faction goes off to make a new world of their choosing — or the losing side gets kicked out. That was Punartam's story, and which version you got depended on whether the person doing the telling was from Punartam or Ntshune.
"Prison colony for the worst offenders. Probably people like your — " He stopped, stiffened.
"Like Ioan," I said, my stomach plummeting as if the tree had suddenly removed its support from under our feet.
"Something like that," he said, wary again. Maybe he feared I was going to get all confiding or burst into tears. "Go to sleep," he concluded abruptly. "I can't keep proper watch with people nattering in my ear all night."
I was now suspicious that the Queen's overwhelming presence was glamour- assisted. I tagged along behind her and Dllenahkh the following morning as they walked in the mellow light below the trees and he told her about Sadira, the Sadiri settlement in Tlaxce, and New Sadira. As I translated, I absently probed at my emotions but found nothing amiss.
After she dismissed us and swept off with her small entourage, I asked him directly. "How does the Queen strike you?"
"Cautious," he replied. "She has clearly heard reports, but she assumes nothing and waits for me to confirm. A very scientific approach."
"Well, yes, but is there anything more? How does she feel to you?"
He raised a faintly puzzled eyebrow. "Bored. Lonely."
"Do you find her beautiful?" I asked at last.
"Ah," he said in dawning comprehension. "You are worried about the possibility of glamour. No, she uses none."
"Well, if any of us could tell, it would be you," I grumbled. "Do me a favor. When you get a chance, ask her about the Unseelie Court."
We were invited to a formal dinner that night. I could not help smiling at the seating arrangements. Qeturah was given a couch on a smaller dais with Lian and Fergus nearby, and the Elves who attended her were mostly male and, well, damn good- looking. Nasiha had the smallest dais with Tarik at her side, Joral slightly below, and again some very good- looking attendants. I had no such luck. Perhaps this matriarchal society required that I have at least one pet male of my own to qualify for special treatment, or perhaps I was still too useful as a translator. I was stuck just a little back from Dllenahkh, who was seated at the Queen's right hand. On the bright side, it seemed that the most attractive attendants had been reserved for the Queen's dais, so during lulls in conversation I amused myself by ranking them. One of them, an eight point five on my scale, was quietly tuning a stringed instrument resembling a cithara. He caught my eye and smiled. My eyes widened, and I elbowed a startled Dllenahkh in the ribs.
"Quick! Ask her about the Unseelie Court!" I hissed.
He complied, with only a disapproving quirk of the corner of his mouth to chastise me for my behavior, and I dutifully translated. The Queen's eyes went from lazy to furious for a moment, then she instantly regained her calm.
"It is true," she said. "It appears that war, when deprived of one reason, simply seeks out another. We are still a people divided, having selected different aspects of legend to embody. And yet it is better than it once was."
"How so, Your Majesty?" asked Dllenahkh.
Clapping her hands, she caught the minstrel's attention. "Tell them a story of the Elder Days, the one about the woman with three sons."
The minstrel set down his instrument, stood, and addressed the court in a mellifluous tenor.
"A woman had three sons, and when they were grown, the first came to her and said, 'Mama, I love a girl and wish to marry her.' She replied, 'Son, this gladdens my heart, but of what lineage is she?' 'Alas, Mama,' he told her. 'She is half Terran.' His mother raised her hands and shook her head and said, 'A tragedy, but I will cope.'
"The second son came some time after to inform her of his desire to marry, and, worse yet, the bride he had selected was half Terran, half Ntshune, with no taSadiri in her at all. But again his mother raised her hands, shook her head, and said, 'A tragedy, but I will cope.'
"Finally, the third son came to her and said he was engaged. When she inquired about the girl's lineage, he answered smugly, 'She is all taSadiri, Mama.' 'Wonderful news,' his mother cried. 'Of what family?' 'She is of the Other clan,' he confessed. Whereupon his mother rose up with her blade and slew him without another word."
The bard waited for me to finish translating, then spoke low for my ears. "I hope you have rendered it well. It is one of my best tales, handed down from my grandmother."
"Tale or family history?" I murmured teasingly in reply. He merely smiled enigmatically.
"Conflicts are less intense, less bloody than before. Some blame the admixture of our blood; others credit our new traditions," the Queen said.
"And some say there is yet a third reason," murmured the bard as he returned to his instrument.
"Peace, child, all in good time. What my impertinent greatgrandson wishes me to tell you is that some of the women of the Seelie Court are long- lived, specifically the women of my house." The Queen looked around at her attendants. Suddenly, their devotion and her goddesslike air no longer seemed unwarranted.
"In many cultures it is considered discourteous to ask a woman her age," Dllenahkh said. "If I may beg your pardon in advance, would you satisfy my curiosity?"
I took care to translate the elegant framing of Dllenahkh's request. I believe I succeeded, for the Queen smiled at him and said graciously, "I am nearly three hundred and forty- seven Standard years."
"Cygnian law prohibits extending the life span by genetic means," Qeturah noted. "It is a risky proposition, with uneven results."
The Queen shrugged. "What was done was done so long ago. Were we perhaps seeking to restore the years that the mixing of our blood had taken from us? And yes, the results are uneven, as you can witness. But it has provided a core of stability in our society."
"You are a land of true matriarchs. Is that why there is no king in your court?" Dllenahkh inquired.
The Queen seemed delighted at this question. "There have been two in the past, but these days I follow the example of other women of my House and content myself with my attendants." There was a slight choking sound as Fergus inhaled his drink, no doubt finally realizing the significance of his placing at the Commissioner's feet. Qeturah smiled and patted his shoulder. "Hush, dear; no explanations. This is no time for me to lose face."
"What a life," Lian said to me afterward. "I've never seen a woman with a harem who so obviously deserved it. I hope she keeps a close eye on her family tree. It would be very awkward to seduce one's great- grandnephew."
"They're a small population," I agreed. "I wouldn't be surprised if there was a little mutual kidnapping going on with the other Elves."
"Yep. Anything for fresh blood," Lian said.
I frowned to myself, not quite knowing why.
The discussions continued. What made matters particularly difficult was the fact that the Queen became enthralled by the sound of the Sadiri language and pressed Dllenahkh to speak only in that tongue. Cymraeg is very poetic, even romantic, and Standard less so, though serviceable enough. Sadiri is absolutely perfect as a programming language, but when it comes to matters of the heart, it falls a little short. This became obvious when the tenor of the conversation began to change.
"Why don't you tell me I'm beautiful?" she said randomly one day.
"It would be appropriate if you were to comment on the aesthetics of my person," I communicated to Dllenahkh.
His eyebrows rose the merest fraction. "The fact that you are an extremely attractive woman is sufficiently obvious that it does not require my repeating it."
"Need I tell you what so many others have told you before?" I replied to her.
She laughed lightly. I bit my lip in frustration.
"Any progress with that translator?" I asked Tarik moodily as he worked on his handheld, comfortably seated on edge of the t'bren with his legs dangling over high green infinity.
He gave me a steady look. "It will not be ready before the end of our sojourn here."
"Blast," I muttered. "I'm so tired of this."
On the last day of our stay, the Queen seemed in a reflective mood. She took Dllenahkh and me up to the highest t'bren, whose view extended beyond the trees, across the valley, and to the gray- shadowed horizon with its high, distant mountains. A small group of attendants followed as usual, and her minstrel played his cithara in the background, singing in some variant of Cymraeg that was unfamiliar to me. The business of the Elven-Sadiri exchange had long been concluded, with the result that the only talk remaining between them was small talk. Dllenahkh noted in grave Sadiri fashion that the music was pleasingly harmonious.
"It is a love song," she said to him, but her eyes were on me, her smile mocking though not yet cruel. "Shall I translate it for you?"
She signaled to the minstrel with a languid movement of her hand, and he began again, singing softly to the complex melody while she translated in perfect Standard:
"The mind is a golden vein
seamed in crumbling rock (also known as rotting quartz)."
And why had it amused her to have me tagging along as an imperfect interpreter when she could easily have spoken for herself in Standard? I would never understand what passed for humor among the Elves.
"The golden mean becomes a kindness
as she learns to sip the echo of his smiles."
That was a nice little turn of phrase there. The echo of a smile — that reminded me of the subtlety of Sadiri facial expressions.
"That Sadira died,
that her heart was shorn of innocence by a conscienceless
. . . the hell? She couldn't possibly mean . . .
And yet my spine stiffened as the lilt of her voice and the sly slant of her looks suffused each word with a far too personal significance.
"that she tempts him to laughter
and other ruin,
that they ache,
that they find their way, slowly,
delicately, respectfully —
passion's slow but inexorable burn . . ."
I was too embarrassed to look at Dllenahkh and too curious not to, so I settled for a furtive glance that only told me that he appeared to be perfectly still and controlled.
"It's not the sun that blinds her,
nor the golden rays of impossibility
in an infinitely permutable and permissive landscape.
Light diffuses through suspended sand.
They dance, exquisitely slowly, an elegant
She concluded the verses with a gentle flourish of her wrist and fingers. "I have so much time and so many to choose from," she said to me with a beautifully condescending smile. "I can afford to be generous."
Then she gracefully inclined her head, gathered up her entourage with the casual command of a glance, and withdrew, leaving us alone on the lookout with the minstrel still quietly playing nearby.
My ears were burning. It was impossible to pretend that I did not understand who the song was referring to, and what she had just hinted.
Dllenahkh cleared his throat. "I have recently received some new projections concerning the planned infrastructural improvements for the Tlaxce homesteadings. Would you care to go over them with me? I believe there are some points that may be of interest to you."
"Yes, let's. That sounds fascinating," I quickly agreed, and we made our way back to our t'bren with no further incident.