The Wilding by C. S. Friedman
The Wilding is one of the most recent novels by notable science fiction and fantasy author C. S. Friedman. The piece is largely reminiscent of Asimov’s Second Foundation in his highly acclaimed Foundation series, in which psycho-history and telepathy are integral to the functioning of society.
For those of you familiar with Friedman’s much earlier piece, In Conquest Born, my review of the exposition may seem like overkill since this novel takes place in the same universe, just 200 years after the events of In Conquest Born. The vast majority of the book takes place in two contrasting expansive interstellar empires: the American-esque Azean Empire that allows for diversity and equality between humans of any sort, and the Roman-style Braxin Holding in which power, treachery, and good breeding are admired traits, misogyny is expected, and raping a woman is supported by law. We follow a number of characters, one main persona from each empire and a plethora of secondary ones. What is central to the plot is the existence of an entire civilization of humans who have telepathic abilities and have seceded from the Azeans because of political reasons.
Friedman develops culture, religion, ecology, architecture, fashion, and even linguistic idiosyncrasies with convincing and compelling detail. Each world, space station, and star ship we encounter, every government system, commercial organization, and religious group is explained in detail. But Friedman does not draw out her descriptions like, say, Victor Hugo, but rather weaves bits and pieces of her world into the plot. It is not overwhelming, and the significances, while sometimes a bit obvious, are not too subtle or cumbersome. In short, she doesn’t write this like a textbook.
The characters themselves are well-developed for the most part, if not predictable and somewhat flat in places. Tathas and Zara, the two main characters, are especially static and experience little to no change whatsoever throughout the plot. Perhaps the only truly dynamic persona is K’teva, but despite this great development, Friedman gives her little attention. In fact, we are given nearly as much insight into an irrelevant courtesan who services the ruler of the Holding, the Pri’tiera, and an Azean intelligence official who also contributes nothing to the plot. There are a number of named characters that contribute little or nothing to the plot, many of which die. So while the exposition is quite engaging, the characters leave much to be desired.
What really disappoints is the ending of the novel, which “resolves” the principle conflicts but fails to truly bring catharsis to the piece. Not to mention that the ending consists of an almost random and rather abrupt assassination followed by a scene with vaguely developed characters commenting on issues that far exceed to plot and characters of the novel. And while few could meet the standards set by Asimov and authors like him, Friedman fails at rising to her own standards of good writing. Having previously read and enjoyed her Coldfire Trilogy, I was hoping for something with just as much depth and excitement and with equally compelling characters. But Friedman has certainly missed the mark on this one.