Kiondili Wae is a struggling student on Jovani, determined not to join the spacer guild who killed her parents. As a Human Mutant Esper, she's a fourth class citizen in a galaxy of alien races with FTL travel. When she gets the chance to join the Corson research outpost to help the Human FTL research project, she jumps at it. But not everyone there is pleased to see her.
This is not one of Harper's best books. The FTL drive is described with plausible enough techno-babble, but the actual research process has the sort of ludicrously short timescales seen only in fiction. And the characters aren't drawn with Harper's usual depth. There are several conflicts that seem to be set up just to pour more problems on Wae. Wae herself is interestingly flawed, as she spends a lot of energy hating the guild, yet even this is seriously underplayed. The best part is all the various aliens, who are indeed alien, and not simply "bipeds in rubber suits". Yet all in all, it is the highly-mutated humans who are the most alien.
Dion is a Healer and Wolfwalker on her first Journey. And it isn't going to be easy: she is attacked and injured by giant insectoidal worlags, is captured by slavers, escapes into even worse danger, and finally has to decide whether to risk her life to relearn an ancient healing technique to help her friends.
Although this seems to have all the standard fantasy tropes -- healers, mind-linked wolves, mediaevalesque society -- it is actually pure SF as much Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite, and more so than Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series: a post-apocalyptic story of human settlers on an alien planet (here the mind-linking with the wolves being the one plot device that needs to be swallowed). The alien biology is interesting, and the clues about the ancient apocalypse well planted.
Dion is a super-competent heroine: she's a healer, a fighter, and is even an expert climber. And as usual, the protagonists solve a problem that has baffled the rest of the world for centuries -- but they are at least in plausibly different circumstances when they do so. Even so, nothing is too easy: medicines run out, people get hurt, plans go awry, people die. The action scenes are well described, with no 'comic-book' violence: you can almost feel the swords slicing through the flesh. A good page turner -- although this book does have a conclusion, there is an obvious sequel -- and I'm off to buy it!
Dion and her friends have escaped from the slavers, but now need to find their way back to their own counties, to warn their kin folk of the danger of war. They do not have an easy time of it. Dion seems to have the worst of it -- but maybe that's just because most of the tale is from her PoV.
There's less about the Ancients -- the first settlers on this world -- this time, but more about Dion and Gray Hishn's bond. And lots and lots of grittily realistic fighting.
One of the things I like about these books so far is that nothing is too easy. The characters get hurt, they fall into traps, they plan escapes that are thwarted by some turn of events. The continual plot twists and set-backs give the story a breathless pace -- the sort that's great for reading in a single sitting.
Dion and her friends are back home, and are preparing for war against Longear. There's trouble with the wolves in the enemy counties; they appear to have broken their generations long pact with the humans, and are hunting down refugees for the enemy. Dion can no longer communicate with their packsong, and must find out why they have turned. But that means her venturing into dangerous enemy territory without the help of Gray Hishn.
There is little healing this time -- only of a wolf's broken leg -- but just as many fights and conflicts as in the previous books -- with Worlags, with wolves, with raiders. But I found this one a little less involving, somehow. Maybe it is due to the multiple PoVs, and the flashbacks, breaking up the flow of the story. However, there's a good view of some of the massive technology of the ancients, and a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.
Harper returns to her Wolfwalker world, moving several years into its future, with a tale of Rezsia, Healer Dion's estranged granddaughter. (Although this is a stand-alone book, one event towards the end will appear as a massive cheat unless you have read the previous tales.) Rezsia has lived all her life in the city, kept away from the wolves and the wilderness by her father, who bears a grudge against his wolfwalker mother Dion. So when she bonds with Grey Vlen, a young wolf, and has to undergo a dangerous trek through the wilderness to discover the source of an Ancient medicine, she is ill-prepared for what she might find.
This book has all the vivid descriptions of coping in the wild one expects of Harper -- you really feel she is describing, not merely imagining, what it is like to sleep out in the open, prepare food over a campfire, ride along a rugged trail, fall and break a leg, cross a flooded river, survive an attack by an alien monster... Despite this vivid realism, I felt rather unengaged by the protagonist, an allegedly competent adult thrown into a strange environment, undergoing the rather late in life rite of passage of learning how to survive in a hostile alien wilderness. She has to keep reminding her more experienced companions "I'm ignorant, not stupid". Despite this, and despite rapidly learning trail skills, her reading of other people is less than mature, and the book's crisis is brought about by her doing something incredibly stupid, and as the planning of this stupidity took a while, you have the opportunity to keep yelling at her "no, no, don't do that!". Yet it did keep me turning the pages.
There are some spoilers for events in Dion's life between the end of the first trilogy and this, which I presume are recounted in the Dion books still to come. So I will probably leave off reading those for a little while, until the details have faded somewhat in my memory.
Dion is tired of all the pressures put on her by the Council: to scout and to heal. So she takes some time off to spend with her family, despite a call for a healer. This minor act of defiance spirals into tragic consequences, and leaves her bereft. Only staunch friends, and an annoying intern, stop her self-destructing.
I said of an earlier book that nothing is too easy. Here it's all nearly impossible. Dion suffers, physically, mentally, emotionally, and the reader is dragged through all the trauma, too. But it's worth the journey, to meet the aliens.
Tsia is an ecologist who has trained all her life to become a guide. Finally, she has taken the guide virus, which is mutating her body and forming an empathic 'gate' to a particular species. But she links to is the Felines -- the one species totally forbidden to guides under the Landing Pact. Before she can come to terms with this disaster, she is captured by traders, brutally tortured, enslaved, and prepared for inclusion in a piece of 'performance art' that makes snuff movies sound like Bambi.
The cover makes this look like a typical 'human bonds with fluffy Big Cat' book; it isn't. The cats are real -- wild and untamed -- and not at all simply 'humans in cat skins'.
There's an awful lot packed in here. The planetary background, the ecology, the social structures, the technology, are all complex, different and interesting (although I found it difficult to believe that the artists' subject matter would be quite as accepted as it seems to be, and the resulting torture scenes are rather grisly for me). There's very little 'info dumping', so most of that complexity is implicit, with just the consequences described, giving a feeling that there is a whole real world history underneath. After a slightly slow start, the pace is breathless, with lots of twists, and the conclusion is not cliched.