Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass, the first in the Arbai trilogy, is nothing short of amazing. We are given a multi-layered story that keeps true to the science fiction and fantasy genres while managing to create something completely new and fresh, which is no easy task. I was so engrossed in the book that I read the last 250 pages or so during one day. It’s just that good.
A universal plague has broken out amongst the people of Grass‘ universe. People are becoming sick and dying, even years after being exposed. The doctors and scientists don’t know how to stop it. The only ones with any information, it seems, are the leaders of Sanctity, the most popular religion. The head of Sanctity decides to send his nephew to Grass, the only planet that has had no sickness. And thus, Rigo, Marjorie, and their two children end up in an entirely new world with unfamiliar rules and strange taboos.
The wonderful about Grass is that Tepper has shaped it to be so many things. The main plot circles around Grass and its relationship with the plague. But it’s easy for the reader to completely forget about the disease and explore the relationships between Marjorie and those around her. She’s our protagonist, and Tepper positions us well in her head.
Marjorie’s marriage is not a good one. Her husband and she have personalities that tend to make things worse for one another, rather than better. Stella, their daughter, takes after her father, much to Marjorie’s chagrin. Rigo’s mistress is along for the ride, to round out the dysfunction. These people can’t work together in a cohesive unit.
This lack of unity hurts them. Meeting the “bons”, the noble families of Grass who exercise their veiled hostility toward all non-bon people, in such a state makes gaining their trust a difficult task. They could try hunting with the bons, but one view of the creatures these settled people both hunt and hunt with disturbs Marjorie greatly.
On another part of Grass, Brother Mainoa of Sanctity is working on the Arbai village ruins. The ruins of several Arbai villages have been found on many planets now inhabited by humans. No one knows what happened to the Arbai; all the villages show few remains and relatively obscure relics. Except for the one on Grass. The Arbai remains there are ripped apart. Brother Mainoa studies the site in order to gain new insight, whether from the artifacts or from the strange friend he gains.
Mixed into all this are religious anarchists, monstrously evil creatures, horsemanship, disease vectors, people with their minds wiped blank, murderous monks, and kind people in unexpected places. Grass is so complex that I don’t really feel that I can describe it properly. It’s a marvelous story. I especially enjoyed the option Tepper gives the reader of focusing on one particular part of the story — they don’t all wind together until close to the end. It makes it more difficult to predict what’s going to happen, which is great. I like to be surprised when I read!
Once everything is together, things still go off in surprising directions. So surprising that I’m going to have to get the next book in the series soon.