(originally published as two novels: Northshore and Southshore.
Lately, I've been disappointed in a lot of the Tepper books I've read. She's an excellent, brilliantly original writer, but too often there's a tendency toward over the top climaxes and beat-em-over-the-head politicizing.
There definitely ARE gender issues going on here... but set in the context of the social structure of an alien species, the situation is handled deftly, with the right amount of subtlety.
It's a long book, and it lags slightly in the middle, but its also very rich, with a well-drawn world and a perfect mix of sci-fi and horrific elements.
In this world, we see a planet that was definitely colonized by humans, but the party line, set by an extremely strict society ruled by a politico-religious body called the Awakeners, is that people were always here.
One of the main tenets of the religion is that the corpses of the dead must be given to the Awakeners for "sorting." If you were not good enough in life, you are destined to be given a reanimating agent and you conscious-but-dead body will be forced to do manual labor, zombie-like.
In rebellion against her dead mother's heresy, a young woman joins the hated-and-feared Awakeners - but once there, she learns that her religious zeal is met with a degree of amusement - and a terrible disillusionment is in store, when she learns that certain practices have little to do with salvation, and much to do with the mysterious, vicious fliers - alien bird-men that have been seen talking with high-ranked Awakeners.
Meanwhile, river traders are exempt from some of the restrictions places on townsfolk. One such riverman, a wood carver, accidentally fishes the body of the dead heretic woman from the water. It has been struck by the Blight, an ailment that turns living flesh to the appearance of wood. Pretending the dead woman is one of his carvings, he keeps her in his cabin, in a odd obsession - that will lead to yet another revelation about the weird truth of life in this world...