R. Lee Smith's books are not for everyone. They're full of extreme situations and tend to provoke extreme reactions--maybe you love it, maybe you hate it. This was my sixth R. Lee Smith book, and I'm firmly in the 'love it' camp. But if you're sensitive to sexual violence or violence in general--if you don't like morally grey, slightly terrifying heroes--you're more likely to fall into the 'hate it' camp.
So. The Last Hour of Gann.
It starts with our heroine, Amber, on a dystopian Earth where space travel has just reached the point of being commercialized. Her Earth-life is pretty rough, and the risk of signing onto the first space colony as an indentured worker seems worth the cash reward she'll claim...if she comes back alive.
Well, the space jaunt doesn't go as planned. The ship veers off course and, while the passengers are in stasis, travels for hundreds of years before crashing on Gann. The ship explodes. Most of the passengers die. A rag-tag band of fifty humans find themselves in a survival situation on a wrecked planet where the sun is a smudge in the sky and winter is coming.
The first half of the book is about how the survivors cope. How they band together. How they cling to lies that give them hope. And how they pick one person to soak up all their frustrations. A scapegoat who, by absorbing all that anger, greases the wheels for everyone else.
That person is Amber.
Amber knows she's never going to be the favorite. She knows she's abrasive, foul-mouthed, a bit of a downer. She tries to compensate: to do more than her fair share of work, and ask for less than her fair share of the comforts. She tries and tries and tries. It doesn't matter.
I don't think I've ever read a better portrayal of what it's like to be disliked. The itchy rage. How swallowing her resentment, letting it simmer silently beneath the surface, makes everyone hate Amber more--because they can sense it, and it's not fun.
The other survivors are caricatures. They reminded me at times of whack-a-moles. Bumbling from one delusion to another, telling themselves ridiculous stories until reality intervenes and they have to retreat and reformulate. Then they pop up again, just as crazy as before.
But it didn't matter that the other survivors are caricatures, because Amber is so real. I don't know about you, but every time I've been in a small, isolated group it divided this way. I've been part of the in group, sincerely hating the odd man out. I've been the odd man out. It's horrible, and Amber's awareness of the others--the way they become a sort of barrage, a pelting, a trial--rang absolutely true to me.
So these humans are slowly dying in an alien wilderness when (about 20% of the way through) they discover that they've crashed into a planet with sentient, humanoid life-forms. Lizard-men, or dinosaurs, to be exact.
Of course, we've known about the lizard people all along, because we've been following our hero, Meoraq, from the beginning. He's a warrior-priest in a world where there's nothing better than to be a warrior-priest. In exchange for traveling from city to city engaging in gladiatorial battles-to-the-death, he gets to enjoy all the luxuries his medieval-esque world has to offer: hospitality, material goods, and women.
His encounters with women are brief, highly structured, and mutually unsatisfying. The women are forced (by family, by low status, by barrenness) to accept the advances of a stranger. And Meoraq--the stranger in question--believes he's doing God's work.
He doesn't like it. He doesn't like a lot of things about the way his society is organized. But he's a warrior-priest and he believes that God wants things exactly as they are. So he doesn't ask questions. He just performs his role to the best of his ability.
When Meoraq meets the human survivors, he's on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Xi’Matezh. He believes that God put them in his path as a test, so he takes up the job of teaching them to survive on Gann.
As it happens, however, only Amber is interested in learning to survive on Gann. Only Amber has faced up to the fact that they're never, ever getting back to Earth. So Amber is the only human who latches on to Meoraq. She learns his language, and anything he'll teach her about his world.
The others prefer to wait for Meoraq to feed them. And then complain that maybe he hasn't done a good enough job. And then joke about how he's ugly and probably stupid, more like a dog than a person.
That's how the romance starts. Amber and Meoraq are thrown together, each for their separate reasons shouldering the thankless--truly thankless--task of keeping the human survivors alive.
Meoraq discovers that despite a lifetime of being told that the pinnacle of feminine perfection lies in silence and obedience, really, what he prefers is a foul-mouthed, disrespectful woman who knows her own mind. And he eventually--conveniently?--comes to the conclusion that God sent Amber to him as a wife.
Amber, who's spent her entire life caring for other people, finds in Meoraq someone who will care for her. When Amber is sick, Meoraq tends her. When she's exhausted, he picks up the slack--or pushes her to dig into her reserves.
Normally I'm not a fan when heroines turn weepy, but with Amber it was beautiful. We've seen how tough she can be. We know that she can suck it up, adapt and make-do. We know she'd keep on keepin' on, if she had to. When she finally lets down her guard, it was such a relief. I knew how much she had bottled inside. I knew how much she had to trust Meoraq before she could uncork that bottle and face her own emotions.
Anyway. Lots of stuff happens and I don't want to spoil any more than I already have. Amber and Meoraq find one another, and then they're tested. Personally, I preferred the first half to the second half--I thought it was tighter and more natural. But I was glued to the page from beginning to end, and I found the conclusion satisfying.
One thing I like about R. Lee Smith's books is that she often sets up a kind of culture clash. The collision highlights where each faction has gone wrong, sickened or failed. That's exactly what happens in The Last Hour of Gann. Meoraq's world is medieval-esque. Amber's is modern. Both are broken.
The question is whether Amber and Meoraq, seeing the best in one another, can change anyone else.