I found Ammonite astonishing throughout. It hooked me from page one, which is always a delightful sensation. It reminded me of Jean M. Auel‘s The Plains of Passage and Ursula Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed while being something completely different all of itself.
I’m not going to do justice to the story in my synopsis, but here goes… the planet Jeep, colonised centuries ago has been rediscovered by the Company. The entire population is female, and when the ‘Mirrors’ (soldiers) arrive they quickly contract a virus that kills all men, about 30% of women and leaves the world in quarantine. Enter Marghe Taishan, employee of the Company, anthropologist visits the planet while testing an experimental vaccine which might be the only hope of leaving Jeep for the Company employees quarantined there. It’s clear that Marghe can’t learn anything about the people if she stays in the Mirrors’ isolated base so she sets off into the wild.
From there it would be incredibly simplistic to say that she ‘goes native’ given the depth and complexity of the world she adopts and is adopted by. The women of Jeep live in tribes connected by an intricate system of trade, obligation and duty – ‘trata’. It’s into this web that Marghe is soon bound, bringing the women of the Company into trata too. And that’s just the start – explaining much more is a frightful spoiler show.
What we get is rich, interesting and intensely human characters presented in a familiar yet wholly new and refreshing social context. Marghe goes through a hell of a journey to understand Jeep, the women who live, have babies, farm, go to war and fall in love, and most of all to understand herself. At times the book veers between fantasy, science fiction and cultural exploration. It’s a synthesis I found very satisfying and intriguing. Once she finally settles and begins to learn how reproduction and cultural heritage work the whole story unfolds in another dimension entirely.
Apparently this was Nicola Griffith’s first novel – it’s superb. I found it by spotting the SF Masterworks livery. Sometimes that collection feels like it’s just every sci-fi book ever written, but this is definitely a gem that deserves to be in print constantly.
I’ve no doubt that there’s a host of essays covering the gender and sexuality themes running through Ammonite – they’re interesting and well explored and ever so interesting. That and the story and the characters that kept me reading. It’s one of very few books that went straight onto my ‘re-read soon’ stack.
Go and buy and read it now.