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SILENCE IN SOLITUDE
1986

Book cover art by Neal McPheeters.
Review © 2002 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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Silence in Solitude smartly continues Melissa Scott's Silence Leigh trilogy, keeping the storyline fresh and invigorating by taking readers down unexpected new paths. This sophomore entry opens with Silence is training on the planet Solitudo Hermae, to become the first female magus in history. Her sponsor, the magus Isambard, has agreed to train her in exchange for her taking him along once she discovers how to reach long-lost Earth.

Just to recap, Scott has developed an interesting, but sometimes too complex for its own good, notion of space travel utilizing metaphysical concepts. Spaceships are powered by "harmonics," and must be properly tuned like musical instruments so that they can leave the confines of the material universe and travel throughout "purgatory" (a concept similar to hyperspace). Though hard SF watchdogs will no doubt bristle, it's an imaginative way of dealing with such intractable scientific problems as the inability to fly FTL, and Scott has worked her quasi-magic out well enough that it's easily accepted within the context of her story.

Silence discovers that the only way to find Earth is to utilize an antique star map that Isambard says is in the possession of only one man, Adeben Kibbe, the satrap of the planet Inarime. This map will help them bypass a blockade that the outlying Rose Worlds have set against anyone looking for Earth. Luckily, Kibbe is hostile to the Hegemon, which has publicly humiliated him. But he may demand a high price for handing over his map. Learning the Hegemon's forces — on the hunt for a female pilot who might be a mage and looking for Earth — are on their way to Solitudo, Silence, her two husbands Denis Balthasar and Chase Mago, and Isambard flee to Inarime and meet Kibbe, who does indeed demand a rather large favor.

Kibbe's daughter Aili is being held hostage in a women's palace in the midst of a vast lake on Asterion, the Hegemon's home world, to compel Kibbe's continued good behavior. Kibbe, with the help of some anti-Hegemon members of the nobility, is planning an outright invasion of Asterion to take the throne. He wants Silence to infiltrate the women's palace disguised as a nobleman's daughter and liberate Aili before the raid begins. Having no real choice, Silence undertakes this side-quest, after some quick training in palace etiquette to smooth over her rough star-pilot's edges.

The first hundred pages of Silence in Solitude feel a bit tedious and wieghed down, as Scott does her usual thing of conveying the intricacies of her magecraft with eye-glazing detail. Happily, it picks up markedly once the rescue plot kicks in, becoming splendid space opera escapism. Turning Silence into something of a female Dominic Flandry this time was a surprising choice, but Scott keeps firm control of her trilogy's consistency, effectively building dramatic tension by hitting her heroine with the odd well-timed surprise. Most impressively, Scott understands how not to succumb to the temptation to pound the story's sociopolitical themes into her readers' heads with a sledgehammer. She is content to let the story take center stage, and the obvious contrasts between the Hegemony's oppressive authoritarianism and the liberated sexual and gender politics of its enemies remains subtextual, rather than overtly black-vs-white.

It was kind of a shame to see Denis and Chase Mago pushed to the back burner in this book, but Scott does devote needed time to building Silence's relationship with them, as what was at first a marriage of convenience starts to develop a real affectionate bond.

You leave Silence in Solitude eager for the final volume, which is exactly how series fiction should make you feel. This trilogy is one of the most worthwhile of its day, and one to track down. Followed by The Empress of Earth.