Read-along: Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle (Week 4)

After travelling the length and breadth of the land, playing the Orthean game of intrigue to the best of her ability, and surviving imprisonment, sickness and assassination attempts, Dominion envoy Christie is finally coming to the end of her stay on Orthe. Will her memories be fond? Has she made a good impression? Will she make it out alive?

It’s the final week of the Golden Witchbreed read-along for SciFi Month, and we’re discussing part eight.

And as we’re talking about the end here, I hope it’s obvious that this is as spoilery as it’s going to get! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!


Week 4: Part 8

Christie’s identity feels very fluid as she struggles to separate herself from the Hexenmeister’s memories and re-establish herself with her human colleagues. Do you think (in retrospect) that she was right to accept the Hexenmeister’s memories? To what extent do you think being an empath has helped vs complicated her experiences on Orthe?

I loved the memories Christie was given by the Hexenmeister (I’m really having trouble keeping a straight face when I type out his name though) even though I don’t think it was the wisest course of action to submit herself to alien technology. There wouldn’t be much of a story if she’d played it safe, I guess.

“The eternal problem of the empath – however close you come to a world, it’s never as close as the native-born; but it’s possible to draw so far from your own society that you strand yourself between the two.”

I think Gentle has done a good job of showing Christie shift quite rapidly into a near-Orthean way of thinking and behaving.  Some of my favourite moments have been those in which she’s looked and looked again, seen friends and associates, and in the next instant seen aliens. I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve looked at something incredibly familiar only to see it strange.

I enjoyed, too, Christie’s brief return to the xeno-team at Eastharbour-Kumiel where she notes the lack of grace in her fellow humans and how uncomfortable she feels around them and their “pseudo-Earth décor” after her complete immersion into Orthean society. I’d say being an empath has complicated her experiences exponentially, but, by heck, it’s made them interesting!


What do you make of the election and the way the T’an Suthai Telestre is chosen?

The choosing of the T’An Suthai Telestre had the feel of something religious rather than political. And if I’ve struggled with any aspect of this book it’s been with the religious side of things. I can grasp the Goddess and rebirth stuff, and I translated Earthspeakers and Wellkeepers as types of priest, with the Wellhouses as churches fairly easily, but I still feel like I’ve missed something fundamental. And the selection of the new Crown fell into this category for me. Haltern’s explanation that “to be T’An Suthai Telestre … you must know yourself well enough to name yourself” and Suthafiori’s own “it is no light thing, to be the hand of the Goddess on earth” feel deeply significant and beyond my ken at the same time.

And I don’t understand why Ruric didn’t step forward, knowing what we know now. Is this choosing too deeply rooted in belief, even for a land-waster?


Do you consider Ruric a traitor? What do you make of her reasons for her actions? Do you think Earth is as big a threat as she suggests?

*jaw drops to floor*

To answer the second part of the question first, yes, I do think Earth is a serious threat to Orthe. I can’t help but agree with Ruric on this: “there has never been a weapon in history too terrible for use” and “you star-travelling, land-owning, fire-weaponed Earth people – are you not the same breed as Golden?” She’s right. Christie knows her own history and has also seen glimpses of Orthe’s history, and yet she still tells Ruric that Earth would “never” use its terrible weapons against Orthe. In fact, this is my only real problem with Christie, that she never once questions whether contact between Orthe and the Dominion is a good idea. I know, I know, it’s her world and her career and sometimes we just get on with the job in front of us and don’t question whether it should be done at all, but I still have a problem with it.

So, do I think Ruric is a traitor? No. And yes. No, because she has done what was in her power to do to try and prevent something that she believes will be disastrous. Yes, because along the way she has betrayed her friends, committed murder and burnt the land. As a powerful and persuasive member of society, surely there could have been another way? Even on twisty-turny backy-stabby Orthe.


How do you think the Dominion will respond to Christie’s reports and recommendation? Do you think they will send her back?

I don’t know how much weight Christie’s report will carry, but I hope the Dominion will listen to her. Although I realise that’s something of a pointless hope because, again, there’s not going to be much of a story for the sequel An Ancient Light if Christie’s recommendations are accepted or Orthe’s own wishes are respected.

I’m also really hoping that Christie is allowed to return to Orthe (I should get a medal for not checking to see if she’s in the second book already, but I don’t want to spoil anything for myself), and I think it’d be foolish not to send her back when she already has established ties on the planet.


Looking back, what are your favourite/least favourite aspects of Golden Witchbreed (characters, themes, subplots/twists)? Anything you would have liked to see explored further?

I have a couple of questions first:

Did I miss something at the beginning – did Christie have a predecessor? I feel she must have done, with the xeno-team there ahead of her, but I don’t remember any mention of one.

And about the Dominion. Have I understood correctly that because Britain is now a much lesser power, British envoys like Christie are expendable? There’s been the suggestion in the book that the Dominion is spreading itself thinly, trying to contact all the aliens it can find (great strategy, that, I’ve got lots of faith in it *sarcasm*), and I imagine pre-tech planets (as Orthe is believed to be) would be of a lesser priority than those worlds with equal or greater tech than the Dominion. (I’m throwing this down here to check I’ve understood the situation because, quite frankly, I’ve been having so much fun with the Orthean stuff, I may well have missed some of the Dominion stuff).


Some of my favourite things:

Despite some initial suspicion (friendly? Charming? I was immediately wary, but then I was wary of everyone to begin with), Ruric has become the best character. I actually like her even more now I know she was the author of so much of Christie’s misfortune (sorry Christie). I love that she is a mature T’An Commander, that she is a worried mother, that she is able to separate friendships out from professional concerns, and that she is a fierce opponent. Her complexity is fabulous.

I’d have paid good money to see so much more Golden Witchbreed archaeology. I was in love with the giant ruined city out in the Barrens, and with the Rasrhe-y-Meluur bridge.

I enjoyed Haltern, Suthafiori, Blaize, Rodion and Maric’s characters a lot too. I was particularly fascinated with how Gentle managed to turn Blaize from scary to sympathetic, and I loved his budding relationship with Rodion. And I’m very glad we got to see Maric all grown up before we left Orthe too.


I’d have liked Gentle to show us more of the biological differences between Ortheans and humans. I was interested in the birth we witnessed, and the supportive family unit we saw in action. I objected to Christie’s rather repetitive use of the word “reptilian” which seemed to get used more negatively than objectively. And her difficulties with the non-binary ashiren were trying. I try to remind myself that this was written in the early eighties, even as I wish Gentle had explored this last idea more thoroughly.

Even taking the odd reservation into account I still really enjoyed this book. It’s definitely one I’m going to reread and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel An Ancient Light. And I’ve bought myself a very pretty (and more robust) copy of the two books in one (along with a bonus short story called “The Crystal Sunlight, the Bright Air”) in preparation.




  1. Oh my gosh. If you’re reading Ancient Light, I’ll scream with you. Wait, what? Read. Read with you.

    RURIC ❤

    She is a fabulous, brilliant character. She has so much complexity, so much inner conflict, so much damn charm. She's so rueful yet unrepentant when she's caught out. And she never, ever submits. I adore her.

    Okay: yes, Christie had a predecessor. You can be forgiven for not remembering, as I'm not sure we ever even learn their name! Christie is assigned after they die; I sort of assumed they may have had help with that, but it's presented as unsuspicious / natural causes.

    Christie is definitely assigned because _she_ is expendable, and pre-tech / low-tech planets are a lower priority. I think this is more to do with her status as a junior diplomat than for being British, though.

    I think the Dominion side of things is absurdly under-drawn. Gentle really isn't interested in it and it shows – this is a book about Orthe, and the Dominion doesn't even get enough window-dressing to call it curtains. If there's a window. The vague sketch doesn't make any sense to me: we discover FTL so we get the hell out there to meet as many people as we can… really? What? Wait. Why the rush? This would make sense to me if it was driven by corporate greed seeking profit / advantage (but the Dominion seems to be government?) – or by the urgency to find a new home because of climate disaster / some other apocalyptic scenario on Earth. We never get the rationale – it seems to be 'we do because we can' – with no reflection back on the enormous investment that would take and the risk it incurs. Plus it's all happened in the course of Christie's successor's career – and he's only in his 40s?

    However, we will get a whole new perspective on Earth in Ancient Light…

    …and instead we got Orthe, so I have no complaints 😉 I'm not really interested in Earth either 🙂

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