Marguerite Angelica Taishen, Marghe, is being sent by a Company she distrusts to a frozen and hostile world where a virus kills all men and many of the women who try to settle there. The Company employees live in a small enclosure, while descendants of the earlier settlers have become tribal and cling to their traditions. But Marghe’s discoveries will challenge herself and the status quo. Can she help create a better life for everyone on Jeep, or will chaos and apathy win?
It was coincidence that I read Ammonite (Random House, 1992) just after Always Coming Home, but interestingly I found that they share some similar interests and themes–and similar shortcomings. Having read and loved Griffith’s Hild, I wanted to try some of her backlist while waiting for the potential sequel.
Marghe is a clearly drawn, sympathetic protagonist, who is competent and thoughtful. She’s clearly traumatized by a past violent attack, but she neither magically overcomes her fears nor are they only visible when it’s convenient to the plot. Her journey into assurance, testing her selfhood and abilities, was lovely and resonant. If you want a book where people largely are trying their best, this is a nice example.
The prose absolutely shines when it comes to the descriptions of Jeep itself. They create a sense of the world far beyond sight, evoking the smell and feel of an alien planet vividly. I think this really helped me understand Marghe’s changing perspectives of the planet. At first it is a foe to be beaten, but over the course of the book she and we begin to see the variety of life and the beauty of the landscape and its inhabitants. It’s a nice way to reinforce Marghe’s outward transformation.
This is a book about a planet full of women, but Griffith pushes back on stereotypical ideas of what this might look like. On the one hand, I appreciated this a lot. It’s a world that feels queer even when all the characters don’t necessarily identify this way–in a way that I can only call lived in. I think that Griffith approached this idea thoughtfully and with an attempt to include many different experiences and expressions. On the other hand, it doesn’t include non-binary or trans experiences at all. Here, biology and identity seem to be unmarkedly the same. Obviously, this is not great!
I was also really concerned by the position Marghe herself takes within the narrative. As I said, I found her personal journey very resonant, and the themes that Griffith is playing with are fascinating to me. But Marghe is an outsider who comes into a native culture and is adopted by them, who pushes them to change their way of life and ultimately ‘saves’ them. While race doesn’t seem to play a deciding role in power structures in this world, I still found the implications troubling within a real world context.
So, I’m not quite sure how to react to Ammonite in the end. For this cis white lady, the story was immersive and engaging. But I also see how it could very easily be hurtful and othering for readers. The beautiful prose and interesting world don’t outweigh that. With those heavy caveats, I would recommend this for fans of Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series and Martha Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite, both specfic stories about competent adult women.