Sometimes science fiction is a subtle exploration of contemporary issues written on far-off planets or in far-flung futures. It sneaks those issues in until you’re halfway through the book and it hits you that the themes of systemic oppression and marginalization of alien peoples is analogous to the way people are marginalized in the here and now. Melisa C. Michaels’ Far Harbor is that book without the subtlety. Attempting to simultaneously tackle issues of colonialism, identity, and mental illness born of space magic, it tries to hit the reader with a directness that I usually reserve for spiders I see in the shower. There are a lot of comparisons between Far Harbor and Planet of the Wizard-Bros, with the space colonialism and space magic, but the chief difference is that Far Harbor is actually good, and one doesn’t wince when reading it.
Ugly Starling is one of the People, the natives of the planet Paradise, but grows up the mistreated foster child of a Terran family that’s wrapped up in old time religion and bigotry. Running away after a particularly violent confrontation with them, she struggles with her identity and doubt, surviving in the wilderness until she has a vision of her destiny in the city beyond the mountains. Prince Hawke is the prince of the People, which amounts to little outside their reservation. His Gift is rare, and some hope it marks him as a prophesied leader who will free them from the Terran colonists. Unfortunately, without the Gifted one it needs to be mated to, the Gift has driven him mad. He fears hoping to ever find a Giftmate and reclaim his sanity, and becomes the target of a conspiracy of Terran collaborators among the People who want to gain favour among the colonists. After he has a vision as well, he and Ugly eventually find their way together. In twenty pages or so, we find that she is his Giftmate, the conspiracy is dismantled, it turns out that she’s a legit princess, and everyone but Ugly does a whole bunch of rejoicing. It takes a final act of divine intervention to bring her and Hawke together as soulmates, ready to lead the People to a bold new era.
For all of its bluntness, the story really comes to grips with the issues around Ugly’s identity. Born of the People, she was raised by humans. She doesn’t know the People’s dress, their customs, their language, their history, none of it. She doesn’t identify as one of them, nor does she identify as human. Her feelings of alienation are one of the central themes in the book, and they’re a constant battle she fights. Even in the denouement, when the high king of the People has welcomed her in his halls and attendants flutter around her calling her Princess Emerald (her birth name), she says “My name is Ugly.” She understands the plight of the People and her role in shaping what’s to come, but she’s alienated from it, with no connection to the historical context. It takes divine intervention and space magic to see her clear of this which, while a convenient ending, also emphasizes how staggeringly impossible it is to overcome those feelings of alienation even when everything is coming up aces.
Far Harbor also digs into themes of colonialism. Terrans are space colonists, and after generations, they have occupied Paradise. The People are relegated to reservations, and regarded as a sort of quaint planetary curiosity. Some of the People want to throw off the Terran yoke, and others want to assimilate into Terran culture and take what it has to offer them. The tension this creates among the People is very real, showing itself in a conspiracy against the high king himself, with the hope of ending the ruling line and transitioning the People to live under Terran government. The most poignant part of it is that there are only about five named Terran characters in the book, none of whom are an evil mastermind behind any plot or scheme. The Terrans don’t create this pressure out of some villainous intent, they create it simply by being there. Terran radios replace the singing crystals of the People, Terran lights instead of the People’s lanterns, etc. The implication is that if not for space magic, the People would have succumbed to Terran pressures long ago.
I’ve talked around it, but the People do have space magic. Each of the People has a Gift. Singing to crystal to communicate over long distances, talking with animals, creating light or fire, that sort of thing. The Terrans, I should note, do not. They consider the People’s fixation on Gifts to be a primitive custom and ritual, and the gifts are subtle enough that the Terrans never really paid attention. Every Gift has a mate, and when Giftmates use their Gifts together, they’re amplified in power and nuance. It’s emphasized that sometimes Giftmates also get married, but not always. Giftmates and lifemates are not always the same, so it’s not merely a soulmate thing. The Gifts create a caste system, where certain gifts are royal, others belong to guards, communicators, priests, etc. Ugly is a Breaker, which makes her lucky, able to light fires, and to change the future of her people. Prince Hawke is a Maker, and it’s never quite certain what his does, only that it is powerful and feared.
The People worship a goddess figure named Lanalei. And she is real. Not some manifestation of the People’s collected subconscious through gifts, but legit extant. She sends both Ugly and Hawke visions, as well as guides in the form of whatever qualifies for a cat on Paradise. When Ugly stumbles into a temple, the priest immediately recognizes the cat and converses with it, then sends her to the high king for the big finale. During Ugly’s struggles with her identity, when she pushes back against the notion of a Gift or a Giftmate, Lanalei hits her and Hawke with a whammy that mixes their experiences and makes them more than the sum of their parts. As divine realism always does, it casts a shadow of “Everything happens for a reason” over the story that undercuts a lot of the struggle. It isn’t really explored, Lanalei is more of a narrative device to get the players in the right places, but it robs them of a bit of agency, making them pawns of prophecy. Also, after the whammy they’re totally in love.
All in all, Far Harbor is a good read. It paints with broad strokes and goes a bit over the top to get where it’s going, from the almost comical tyranny of Ugly’s foster family to the convenient comings and goings of Prince Hawke’s madness. It manages to dig out some nuances of colonization and identity issues, provide an interesting conception of space magic, and the prose is very honest. On the completely arbitrary scale, which extends from Eeyore to Tigger, Far Harbor sits firmly at Rabbit. It cares, but it tends to handwave the details in favour of a grand plan.