Sheri S. Tepper has written several excellent novels rich in detail and
full of weighty issues, among them Grass and The Gate to Women's
Country. She tackles both head-on and sidelong such subjects as
gender inequality, miscommunication between intelligent species, and
the troubling dichotomy between faith and religion. In Northshore
and Southshore, the two halves of The Awakeners, she writes
around intertwined themes of species interaction and the lies propogated
by a false church.
The Awakeners takes place on a planet divided and encircled by
the World River, a globe-girdling body of water that keeps all inhabitants
confined to the Northshore. Thrasne, a young Boatman whose life is a
constant journey ever westward, as proscribed by the priesthood of the
Tower, makes his way working on a trading boat, visiting towns but
never settling in one. Pamra Don is a young priestess of the Tower
whose mother drowned herself in the River, a heretical act that kept
her body from being Sorted as the Tower teaches. Thrasne and Pamra's
lives become forever linked when Thrasne finds the hardened, Blighted
body of Pamra Don's mother. He is astonished and obsessed with the
woman's resemblance to a figure from his dreams he calls Suspirra. He
keeps the Blighted body, letting his crewmates believe that it is a
statue he himself carved. Every time his boat completes the seven-year
journey to Pamra's village, he marks her progression, driven by the
nearly imperceptibly slow plea of the wooden Suspirra.
Pamra's absolute devotion to the Awakener priesthood is shattered when
she discovers that the human dead are not Sorted for eternal salvation,
but either turned into zombie-like workers or simply consumed by the
frightening sacred Fliers. The Fliers, the only other intelligent
species known to Northshore, are actually indigenous creatures working
toward the goal of human extermination and a return to their unchallenged
domination of the world.
A disillusioned and schizophrenic Pamra becomes the leader of a new
faith that will bring into the open a long-secret rebellion from within
the Tower hierarchy itself. It will also bring Thrasne, helplessly in
love with the indifferent Pamra, into contact with a young woman from
the steppes of Northshore. He will become a part of the greatest
expedition his world has ever known, to the unexplored, legendary place
across the World River -- Southshore.
The Awakeners is told in dreamlike language, evoking an otherworldliness
that seems almost possible. A fantasy with a hint of very soft sci-fi,
this novel ruthlessly questions the veracity of the origins of religions.
Arguably not Tepper's best work, The Awakeners still finds its
own place within the body of her fictive works. Sheri S. Tepper is an
undeniably strong, original voice in a genre that often relies overmuch
on cliched ideas.