Read-along: Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle (Week 1)

It’s the SciFi Month read-along, people! And we’re reading a book I had only the barest awareness of previously (double excitement!).

Details for this read-along (and a gripping blurb for the novel) can be found here on imyril’s blog and each week the prompts will be posted on the Goodreads page here.

It’s week one, so I’ll be talking about parts one and two in this post.

Now, come with us to technophobic Orthe, meet Earth’s envoy Lynne de Lisle Christie and watch as two worlds collide!


Week 1: Parts 1 & 2

Apostrophes and italics everywhere! What’s your approach to pronouncing the challenges SFF writers throw at us?

Is it wrong for me to really enjoy this aspect of world-building? When I was younger my heart would sink when I saw lots of complicated names (not so much that I didn’t still read the book, mind), and I don’t know when this changed. I like to try and say unfamiliar words out loud a few times, to get a ‘taste’ for them. I also imagine that it helps that I see words as colours.

Whatever, I have come to love linguistic weirdness in SFF, especially when there is some sort of logic behind it. I like here, for example, how Orthean personal names are bracketed by their mother and father’s names, and how that reflects their social structure and focus on telestre.


‘For my part, I prefer aliens that look alien… Humanoid aliens, they’re trouble.’ Physical differences – and similarities – trouble Christie and the Ortheans this week, but how do you feel? Would you rather your aliens looked more or less like us? Do you think Gentle is giving us a warning about what to expect?

Oh my goodness, THIS! If an alien species looks too much like us, do we attribute our own feelings and values to them too easily? If an alien species doesn’t look so much like us, is it then too easy to see them as incomprehensible, or to dismiss them as less? (I wonder how much more effort we’d put into, say, respecting the rights of whales, if they looked more like us? I mean, we live on a planet teaming with alien life … from one point of view).

Too deep?

Christie is an incredibly easy to like character and I love that she keeps catching herself looking at the Ortheans both as human, and other. And Gentle suggests that the Ortheans are doing exactly the same thing. Already small mistakes in understanding have happened because of the similarities between Humans and Ortheans, and I feel like the author is preparing the way for more, perhaps far bigger, mistakes to come.

Would I rather my aliens looked more or less like us? I don’t know. The challenge would be to see past appearances either way. Wouldn’t it?


There’s a lot of rapid world-building as Christie is thrown in at the deep end. What aspects (if any) stand out or intrigue you?

ALL OF IT! (This is so absolutely the book I needed right now – Lockdown Take 2 means that work is a whole new crap-storm, my anxiety has been through the roof most days this week – I am literally burying my head in this book and waiting for it all to go away).

So, in no particular order: I’m fascinated by the ashiren and Christie’s persistent mistake of thinking of Maric as a boy; I love the whole “don’t trust anyone” thing; I’m interested in the not-at-all-openminded-ness of the rest of the xeno-team – none of them seem to have made any effort to know their hosts or make the most of their situation (also, sexist much? Sheesh!) – I wonder how much of this is down to this book having been written in the early 1980s and how much is by design; I am here for every instance of alien-world-detail, from the marshflower patterning on the skins of the sailors, to the thermosensitive lapuur plant and the “curious yellow light of a rainstorm”; I want to understand everything about the telestre, and about the history of this planet, with its highly literate but sword-wielding peoples, and about those big blank spots on their maps; and, most of all, I want to learn who is actually trustworthy and who isn’t. Which leads beautifully on to the next question …


‘He’s a good man,’ she said. ‘Don’t trust him.’
Every friendly Orthean warns Christie not to trust the others. What are your first impressions of Christie’s new alien allies (Geren, Haltern, Ruric and Dalzielle/Suthafiori) – and what do you think about Orthean intrigues?

I like Geren and feel that he’s OK. I’m not sure about Haltern, but I want him to be trustworthy. I am suspicious of Ruric for no good reason (it’s the yellow eyes, actually, and that makes me feel bad). I sort of feel that Dalzielle is OK … I hope. I’m least keen on most the Christie’s fellow humans, especially Eliot and Barratt, who can go suck it.


‘Up until now they’ve taken you and your kin for overgrown ashiren. Now they know you’re the same as us, it’s just your methods that are different.’ Christie S’aranth survives a second assassination attempt and gains a nickname – do you think the shift in how she is perceived will be a good thing? Would you trust Maric and keep ke close?

Holy cow! How many times is Christie’s life going to be in danger if we’re only just past the first quarter of the book?

I do think the shift in perception is a good thing, because before the Ortheans didn’t even look upon the humans as adults (not surprising when you look at Eliot and Barratt, but even so), and that feels very significant. Christie needs to be taken seriously to do her job well. It’s important that she’s not seen as an easy target too, I think. Intrigue has been mentioned, and I feel like maybe Christie will get to play at this game, where her fellows have been kept at a remove. I don’t know if that makes sense? Like, you can’t play the game (you can’t take part in this adult way of doing things) until you are seen as an adult, yeah? And even though Christie’s nickname is “swordless” with the implication of ashiren, it feels like an acknowledgement of her having been underestimated. (Or, I’ve read way too much into this!)

As for Maric – I trust Christie’s instincts here. And I feel that Maric is OK. I’d like to know if the story of being offered five gold pieces is true, but either way, Maric is still young and malleable, and I don’t feel ke had anything to do with the other attempt on Christie’s life, so I’m going to remain quietly optimistic about ker.


…and anything else you would like to discuss!

There are some lovely moments of sensory detail so far that have me swooning all over this book: Christie’s first view of Tathcaer; the heat, the haze, the mists and rain, the daystars; an evening in Hanathra telestre; riding through the sapphire light of a wood; a house lit by the sun with dark purple rainclouds as a backdrop; the smell of vegetations reminding Christie of the smell of tar. Orthe feels very real.


The next post for this read-along can be found here:

Week 2 – Parts 3 to 5

7 thoughts on “Read-along: Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle (Week 1)



    Not that I’ve had ‘they might hate my darling’ anxiety or anything, oh no. Not me.

    I had somehow entirely missed the detail about Orthean naming (specifically the parents names bracketing the personal name) so I’m so happy you called that out. It’s… perfectly in keeping. I’m loving the detail and nuance around the concept of telestre and the complex relationships with land and family and community.

    …and oh gosh yes I’m rolling my eyes at the humans. Just. What. Ugh. No, don’t let them out of town, they would be a disaster. They ARE a disaster.

    I’m only judging you a little for mistrusting Ruric’s yellow eyes, tch. I have such an in appropriate crush on Ruric tho.

    I don’t think you’re reading too much into Christie’s nickname. But maybe because I’m reading just as much into it 🙂

    I’m loving that I really don’t remember any of the details. I know a key fact about the end that I will be sitting on sphinx-like; but I remember more about book two, so this is a glorious rediscovery of lots of things that are familiar without being known.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, Ruric is an incredibly attractive character… another reason why I’m mildly suspicious! Damn my mistrusting heart!

      Yes yes yes, the family and community set up is fascinating. I love it all. I’m interested to know where this might be going, and what it might mean for Christie and the humans.

      One of the best things about rereading is rediscovering a story you love, right? I’m so glad to be sharing the enjoyment! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “I wonder how much of this is down to this book having been written in the early 1980s and how much is by design…”

    YES, THIS! I had the same thought after I finished this part of the reading, and had a chance to ponder some things. My knee-jerk reaction might be to accuse Gentle of falling into the Old Straight White Guy trap in her thinking, but instead now I feel like (I hope?) that these characters’ attitudes are a deliberate tactic, given how they’re being challenged almost immediately. I’m not entirely sure I like Christie yet, but I’m here for that.

    Liked by 1 person

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