Wonderful world-building, strong characters, and a well-crafted plot with a hard SF core make this one of the best books of 2015. There aren’t many writers who remind me of Ursula Le Guin at her best, but Schoen does.
I love the way this book begins, with a single Fant an anthropomorphized elephant named Rusul setting out on the final journey almost every Fant makes, sailing to an uncharted island where their kind go to die. But as Rusul makes his peace with death, with his life and its passing, the unimaginable happens.
Thousands of years from now, the galaxy is widely populated, but not by homo sapiens. How exactly humanoid-animal species came about is only one of the mysteries of the story, revealed in good time and to great dramatic effect. The future children of the galaxy have Aesop Fable-like characteristics based on their species of origin, but their interests and loves and passions are universal, or at least essentially human. For example, prejudice is still a binding and blinding emotion.
The planet Barsk is a marginal, low-tech world. For 800 years, the Fants have lived on Barsk, isolated and protected by the Compact that keeps all other Alliance species off their planet, in exchange for materials their world provides. Jorl, a historian and Speaker, has actually spent time off-world on Galactic Patrol. But now he is home again, doing his work, and being a sort of godfather to Pizlo, a genetically anomalous young Fant and the son of Jorl’s deceased friend. Being a Speaker means Jorl can, under certain restrictions, commune with the dead a very handy ability for a historian. Jorl is obsessed with the prophesies of the first Speaker, the legendary Margda, who established the rules of Speaking. Certain portents are indicating that a time of crisis is at hand, and that he, Jorl, has a part to play in how, or whether, his people survive. What Joel cannot even guess is that Pizlo is also implicated.
Other species produce Speakers as well; and much more rarely, telepaths are born. Rarest of all is the Speaker-telepath. Since knowledge is power, and foreknowledge is power to the n-th degree, it is hardly surprising that someone with a lust for absolute power has been collecting telepaths to get a read of the future. Unfortunately for Barsk, all the assembled precogs agree that a product native to the planet will lead to a singular breakthrough, the kind that remakes entire civilizations. Even more unfortunately, the one who controls the precogs has just found a Speaker-Telepath who can extract from any mind, living or dead, whatever he wants to know.
This novel is richly nuanced, with ironies that curdle your stomach, humorous touches that delight, and revelations that astound. At its heart, I think, is nestled the parable of the rejected stone. To paraphrase Walt Kelley, “We have made the Alien, and he is us.” ~~ Chris Wozney