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The Visitor    by Sheri S. Tepper order for
by Sheri S. Tepper
Order:  USA  Can
Eos, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Wesley Williamson

As well as being one of the most distinguished figures in the world of speculative fiction, Sheri S. Tepper is also one of its most distinctive voices. She has a style all her own, which is immediately recognizable, and she always delivers a resounding message. She is not a feminist in the usual sense of the word; even in The Gate To Women's Country, for example, it was clear that her target was militarism, not just men.

The protagonist in this novel is Dismé Latimer, a Cinderella figure with a cruel but foolish stepmother, and a very wicked but cleverly manipulative stepsister. The stage is set hundreds of years after an asteroid crashed into the Earth, and almost obliterated civilisation. Only a few scattered and isolated remnants of humanity remain, and Dismé lives amongst one of these, in which a most peculiar society has evolved. The Spared remember the cataclysm, and live according to the rules laid down in the Dicta, their sacred book. They believe that as long as one scrap of flesh is preserved, an individual still lives and can be raised again by the Rebel Angels. Consequently, no one ever dies: some part of each is Bottled, and laid down in a Bottle wall. Opponents of the regime are not treated too harshly; they may be killed but part is always preserved in a Bottle.

The Spared have only fragmented memories of the time before the cataclysm, and believe that all the accomplishments of 21st century life were accomplished by magic. They have set up a series of bureaucracies to try to recover the lost arts, without much success. However, traces of a dark magic are becoming more apparent, involving child sacrifice and mutilation. Meanwhile Dismé has found a manuscript written by her ancestor, Nell Latimer, who lived through the asteroid strike. It contains disturbing revelations. Dismé has survived the deaths of her father and friends, arranged by her stepsister Rashel, by hiding under a cloak of dullness and harmlessness. Now she must emerge boldly into a world of danger and change, to discover the real truths underlying the myths of the demons and the Guardians.

Although the unfolding of the plot holds the reader's interest, the characters, apart from Dismé and Nell Latimer, are not fully developed. Also the mixture of science and magic, with the intrusion of godlike beings, is not made wholly believable. In fact, the story is just a stage from which Ms. Tepper preaches her distaste for the revealed religions with their books of faith, from which intolerant old men draw commandments to make young men and women commit murder in the name of God. Her message is of peace and love for all the men and women who strive for it; of strict justice for the powerful and merciless; and of compassion and charity for the misguided who follow them into wickedness. Not one of the best of her books, but interesting reading nonetheless, and her message deserves our full attention.

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