This year’s Women of Genre Fiction Challenge has led me down many new paths. At first, I was only looking for female SFF writers that I hadn’t read before. One name kept coming up: Octavia Butler. Later, especially with events like A More Diverse Universe happening, I looked into SFF writers of color. Again, Octavia Butler was mentioned probably more than anyone else. So, once again, I have the internet hivemind to thank for discovering an amazing writer.
Published by: Open Road, 2012 (1980)
Ebook: 320 pages
Series: Patternist #1
My rating: 8,5/10
First sentence: Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of his seed villages.
When two immortals meet in the long-ago past, the destiny of mankind is changed forever
For a thousand years, Doro has cultivated a small African village, carefully breeding its people in search of seemingly unattainable perfection. He survives through the centuries by stealing the bodies of others, a technique he has so thoroughly mastered that nothing on Earth can kill him. But when a gang of New World slavers destroys his village, ruining his grand experiment, Doro is forced to go west and begin anew.
He meets Anyanwu, a centuries-old woman whose means of immortality are as kind as his are cruel. She is a shapeshifter, capable of healing with a kiss, and she recognizes Doro as a tyrant. Though many humans have tried to kill them, these two demi-gods have never before met a rival. Now they begin a struggle that will last centuries and permanently alter the nature of humanity.
When I picked up this book, all I knew was that it was going to be the first Octavia E. Butler book I would read and that I liked the cover (my entire basis for choosing this one over her other novels). I didn’t know I would come out at the other end full of emotions and wanting more.
It’s hard to sum up what I thought about this book, but I believe it is, at its core, the story about a war between two people – and a love story. And how close the two can be related. Anyanwu and Doro’s conflicts are amazing in how they change over time. Doro starts out as a tyrant, using people like cattle, to breed and dispose of at his pleasure. Anyanwu is the human counterpart to his cold planning. She cares about people, she wants her children safe, and wishes to be master of her own life. Through all of this, there is one thing I kept reminding myself of: That these are the only two people (that they know of) who are immortal and thus the only constants in each others lives. Children grow old and die, yet Anyanwu and Doro remain. Their power struggles were vivid and engaging to read, and sometimes made me want to rip my hair out.
Doro’s first act as Anyanwu’s “owner” (that’s what he thinks at least) is taking her across the ocean to the New World. The culture shock of being brought to America is nothing compared to what Anyanwu gets herself into with Doro once they’ve arrived at his village. Inbreeding at Doro’s command, losing children and grand-children to the whims of the very man who made her have them, sometimes even fathered them, and coming to terms with a new culture, new clothes and foods, a new language and people treating her like dirt because of her skin color. The way Anyanwu takes on these challenges – in addition to the pain of her outliving any of her children, even if they are not killed by Doro – makes her one of the toughest, most interesting characters I’ve come across in SF.
On another level, the clash between Anyanwu and Doro’s respective immortality, was brilliantly done. Anyanwu is a healer and can simply take care of the most minute part of her body that seems to be ailing or getting older. She controls every cell, can change her appearance, even shapeshift to take animals’ forms. Doro’s way of staying alive – and this is revealed in the very first chapter – is much more cruel, yet I cannot hate him for it either. He needs a human body to inhabit, and whenever that one is spent, he must find another one. The fact that he takes pleasure from this necessary killing makes it easy to hate him in the beginning. But over time, his side of the story grants him depth and some humanity.
Whether it is Anyanwu’s method or Doro’s, their ways of staying alive offer fantastic opportunities to explore race and gender. Anyanwu does have one true form, the way she actually looked after her transition (when her powers came under her total control), but she frequently changes herself into men, even marries a woman at one point. She could be black, she could be white, male or female, but she would always remain herself on the inside. Doro takes a much more practical approach and mostly chooses white male bodies because it makes life a whole lot easier for him. But obviously gender, for these two creatures, is a ridiculous and malleable thing – they even have sex once with Anyanwu in a male body and Doro in a female one.
Once I got over my shock and wonder at Doro’s cruel breeding of humans with complete disregard of their feelings, his character became more and more interesting. As I understand it, the Patternist series (also known as Seed to Harvest or Patternmaster Series) was not published in the order I’m reading it. Wild Seed is the first book chronologically speaking, but was the fourth in the series to be published. But even had I read the three previous novels, I couldn’t get over the fact that in this story nobody ever asks Doro why he tries to breed people with special abilities. Or what his ultimate goal is. He says he wants to create children that will live, like him and Anyanwu, forever, so they won’t have to watch them die, but I somehow don’t believe that’s the whole truth.
On the other hand, the book was so gripping that I really didn’t care much about the Why. With characters this absorbing and small lives ripped apart so heartbreakingly, who needs to see the bigger picture? That doesn’t mean I don’t want to find out more. What I mean is that this book, the way it is, without having everything resolved and every question answered, is stunning. I wouldn’t change a bit. For hungry minds, there are three more volumes in the series.
I’ll see you again after I’m done with Mind of my Mind.
RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!
- Wild Seed
- Mind of my Mind
- Clay’s Ark