After a great splurge in the 1990s — evident in the list of notable works compiled by John Joseph Adams in this 2004 IROSF article — Mars sf hasn’t had all that much play in the last decade, with the most notable recent entry in the subgenre aside from the book on the desk probably being Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars (2009). The original venue of planetary romance has, perhaps, lost some of its mystique, if not its allure: Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road/Ares Express duology aside, it’s hard to think of examples that don’t make a point of treating Mars literally, now that we know enough to do so.
Winterstrike makes a play to reclaim Mars as a venue for mythic-fantastic adventure — it tells of high adventure and political shenanigans, all set in the far-distant future when a dying sun glowers over a land long since terraformed and colonised, and technology is far more than sufficiently advanced — and arguably its greatest success is as a venue. Its Mars is a vivid place, painted in rich colours and striking contrasts; it opens with a woman in “a mass of vitrified stone striped as white as bone and as red as a still-beating heart” — a tower in a crater at the centre of the city of Winterstrike — wearing, prosaically, “woollen mittens knitted by a grandmother” (1-2). The images we’re familiar with from Spirit and Global Surveyor and the rest are buried by such language, a ghost landscape beyond the novel’s present – several layers beyond, in fact. In a later scene, one of the novel’s narrators uses some of the powerful “haunt-tech” available to the elites of this Mars to view the memories of a ruined city; it is precisely a haunting effect, and in general the deployments of this technology, which also include strange organic machines and space travel that is a kind of death, provide some of the novel’s most visceral moments, all the while contributing to the sense of an ancient world, vastly different to the one we’re starting to know. Perhaps the one attribute retained from our associations with the planet is the chill promised by the title, complete with, wittily, frozen canals running through Winterstrike’s heart.
Across this landscape run two cousins. Essegui Harn and Hestia Mar are noble daughters of the Matriarchy of Winterstrike. The former is the woman we meet in the tower, ringing the bell that marks the start of the midwinter festival of Ombre. Soon after the novel begins, her younger sister Leretui — disgraced since she was caught with a vulpen man-remnant — either flees or is abducted from the lovingly restrictive embrace of her family, and Essegui is not just charged with finding her but cursed to do so by a compulsive “geies” cast by a “majike” in the employ of her family. Hestia, meanwhile, is a spy for Winterstrike; she voluntarily indentured herself to the same majike to escape life as a political pawn for her mother. Sent to the rival Matriarchy of Caud in pursuit of an ancient weapon, she also finds a remnant of an ancient library in the form of a “ghost warrior”, whose flayed body is sustained by more ancient technology — “She moved stiffly beneath the confines of her rust-red armour: without the covering of skin, I could see the interplay of muscles” (14) – and who accompanies Hestia more or less enigmatically through the rest of the novel. Before too long, both Winterstrike and Caud have been attacked, and both Essegui and Hestia are off on longer journeys, relating their various escapades in alternating chapters.
If the greatest strength of Winterstrike is its setting, its greatest weakness is how its narrators both rush across that setting almost without pause. It’s surely telling that even two hundred pages into the novel it’s not clear what the nature of the weapon used to attack the cities is, or even exactly what it did. When they are allowed to reflect on their situations, Essegui and Hestia have fairly interesting things to report, but they’re not often given the time to make meaningful choices. Far more often the end of each short chapter sees them thrown into another peril: kidnapped, chased, shot at or otherwise attacked, and so on and so forth. It’s all beautifully constructed, with the two narratives gracefully converging for the lightest of touches, and then separating dramatically. But it’s also often somewhat unengaging. The amount of artifice involved is clear from the neatness with which the closing chapters reflect the novel’s opening, and it could be argued as appropriate to the tale’s mythic ambitions (not for nothing are fairytales invoked with reference to some character’s storylines), but by virtue of some odd “interludes” that alert us to Leretui’s situation, and the involvement of a faction on ancestral Earth, the reader is pretty much always ahead of the not entirely dynamic duo. The ennui and looming inevitability that result can also be seen as apt for a story that repeatedly emphasises that it’s taking place on an old world, one where “You know how it is, these days [...] everything’s breaking down” (160), but it’s still probably the case that neither Essegui’s story nor Hestia’s is as interesting as that of Leretui, who is right at the heart of what turns out to be a plot to restore “balance” to Martian society.
Said balance, as you may guess, has to do with the absence of anything we would recognise as men, devolved in the wake of ancient, unstable genetic adaptations for the inhospitable native Martian surface into what Essegui and Hestia certainly think are various bestial subspecies. Once again, the novel’s present is shadowed by its past: “The oldest legends tell of cycles,” Leretui is told; “first women dominated, and then men, and now women again.” As far as the novel’s prime antagonist is concerned, the citizens of Mars “need to get past that kind of thinking [...] need equality” (147). Bestial men is a trope that’s cropped up elsewhere in Williams’ work — it’s a feature of her Darkland/Bloodmind duology — but this is the most interestingly I’ve seen her integrate it into the fabric of a novel, since it’s far from clear that “equality” is a meaningful concept to apply to what’s left of men. That said, it becomes frustratingly clear in the last thirty pages or so that Winterstrike is not a complete story, and I suspect that if sequels ever do get published (and in the end, despite Winterstrike‘s weaknesses, I hope they do), they will gradually move towards the reintroduction of men, not least because it turns out they do still exist elsewhere in the solar system. From another point of view, what the novel’s antagonists are struggling for is an escape from the weight of history that hangs on Winterstrike: this is in very literal ways a book about how the past remains and is reconfigured into the present, and I suspect that sequels would proffer a fatalistic opinion on the possibility of that escape coming good.
Some of the future history behind Winterstrike has, I think, been outlined in other of Williams’ novels, such as Banner of Souls (2006), that I haven’t read. But even beyond this, Winterstrike felt very strongly embedded in the science fiction megatext — perhaps partly because the central trope of a woman-only world has such an illustrious history, from Herland via Whileaway, but mostly, I’m sure, because I just happen to have read a set of contemporaneous books whose themes and content set up interesting resonances. I can’t help thinking, for instance, that it would have been fascinating to have read this novel in the context of the 2009 Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist; it could be compared on the one hand with Sherri Tepper’s approach to mythologising science fiction, and on the other with Alastair Reynolds’ House of Suns, which also features two first-person narrators drawn from the same clone stock. Williams’ narrators have the same problem as do Reynolds’, namely that they sound the same (give or take slightly more indications of confidence from Hestia, and a slightly less worldly perspective from Essegui), but reading Winterstrike and occasionally being reminded that, yes, everyone is female (for some reason, perhaps not helped by the fact that she’s most often referred to by name or title and not by pronoun, I kept having to snap myself out of visualising the majike as male) is a useful underlining of how Reynolds rigged his set-up. The other book that came to mind while reading Winterstrike wasn’t nominated for the Clarke Award, but did win that year’s Tiptree; it is of course The Knife of Never Letting Go, a radically different planetary romance that portrays a society in which the gender balance is massively lopsided in the other direction, and which is an interesting contrast if only because it makes clear how matter-of-fact Williams is about the fact that her women have spread out into every social role. Perhaps it’s this very backgroundedness, relative to the gothic intensity of the other elements of Winterstrike, that led to the novel’s slightly surprising omission from the Tiptree honour list; but for me such a normalised, grounded imagining makes a significant contribution to the unarguable distinctiveness of Williams’ Mars.