I started out giving this book 3 stars, as a perfectly serviceable sci-fi adventure; although certainly not up to the standards of Vernor Vinge’s later work (I absolutely love Fire Upon the Deep).
It’s a First Contact story, and the premise is a little familiar, but not bad: anthropologists from Earth arrive at a seemingly non-advanced alien planet and gradually figure out that the native people have highly-developed mental abilities (teleportation). Those who lack these abilities are generally seen as useless slaves – Witlings – but in a twist, the crown prince is also a Witling. Naturally, he’s delighted to hear about a society where no one has the powers he lacks.
So – all that is fine. However, the ending of the book bothered me, and kept bothering me until I deducted a star. Spoilers: At the end of the book, one of the anthropologists (who happens to be the only female character of any note in the entire book) is nearly killed in a conflict, and ends up with severe, irreversible brain damage. Amnesiac, and now lacking the intelligence and initiative she showed throughout the book, she will be happy to end up being cared for by the crown prince, who’s had an unrequited crush on her since the day they first met. OK, fine. That’s kind of yucky, but I don’t demand ‘nice’ outcomes for everyone. Tragedy can be great. What bothers me is the one line at the end, where an authorial voice feels the need to say something about ‘knowing a happy ending when you see one.’ Is this supposed to be ironic? That a brilliant, successful woman who’s always been given a hard time and never been considered attractive is now rendered ‘happy’ by having her personality and abilities removed and left in the care of a man who never really knew her, but finds her physically beautiful? I’m really not sure.
Does the author really have these opinions? I would like to think better of Vinge than that.
Oh, and the illustrations are juvenile and rather dreadfully inaccurate.