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High Couch of Silistra

High Couch of Silistra by Janet E. MorrisHigh Couch of Silistra
Bantam Books, 1981 (originally published 1977)
Price I paid: $1.25

Her sensuality was at the core of her world.

Her quest was in galaxies beyond the civilized stars.

Somewhere deep in the heavens of a terribly distant tomorrow was the one man whose will conquered her own.

People are gonna start to think I have something against women science fiction authors.

I really don’t mean for it to come across that way. It just turns out that none of the lady authors I’ve read for the purposes of this blog, with the exception of Leigh Brackett (and she’s currently one for two), have done much for me. It’s not my fault that my relatively small sample size has given me some really godawful books. And I’m trying to find someone who’ll buck the trend.

This book did not buck the trend. It had a lot for me to not like.

For starters we’ve got that cover. Wow, that’s some Boris Vallejo stuff right there, except that it’s not Vallejo. Vallejo did art for a previous edition of this book, also for Bantam, but now that I look at the listings it turns out that this edition’s art is by Lou Feck, who also did the art for Cinnabar and City Wars, so that’s neat.

The book is a lot less “amazing and erotic” than the cover would have us believe, though. The art is at least accurate, although our heroine spends most of the book wearing even less than what she’s portrayed wearing here. I don’t know what’s up with that fur thing, though. It looks like it’s coming from her butt. Also she’s holding it up in front of her in a way that I can only describe as PHALLIC AS HELL.

Ugh, it so accurately describes this book.

Our heroine is “Hestri Hadrath diet Estrazi, former Well-Keepress of Astria on the planet Silistra.” We know this because I just quoted you the first sentence of the book. How many of those words are in bonkers language? Most of them? It gives us a fair idea of what to expect in the rest of the novel.

This is a book that warranted an ELEVEN PAGE GLOSSARY. Oh god and this glossary was so highly detailed I can’t even

I mean, I get it, creating a world is fun. Coming up with animals and customs and deities and stuff, all of that is great. I do it for no reason because I find it enjoyable. Sometimes I manage to turn it into a D&D campaign or something. But there’s a difference between creating a world so you can put a story in it and creating a story that has a world around it. The latter is something that is enjoyable to read. The former is a mess of details that don’t matter, never come up more than once in any meaningful way, and just bog down whatever trace of a story that got thrown in there as an afterthought.

It’s the worst thing about fantasy, the most common sin, and I guess it all starts with Tolkien. The man had a lot of detail thrown into his story, a whole world that he spent lots and lots of time creating down to ridiculous detail. People, myself included, crave more of it. I wish I could say why it works so well for Middle-Earth and why it fails so hard for so many other authors. The best I can come up with is that from the get-go The Lord of the Rings had a real story interwoven with all the detail, with high stakes and some degree of character development. Still, it seems that the story isn’t what people latched onto, it’s the world-building, and people craved so much more of Middle Earth that they (myself included) just gobbled up that half-baked postscript of The Silmarillion and then set about doing their own thing. The difference is that Tolkien was a master world-builder and most of the rest of us aren’t.

So we get things like this.

High Couch of Silistra is ostensibly science fiction but for most of the book it didn’t need to be. It was pretty soundly fantasy even though there was talk of space travel and alien races. It all took place in one region of one planet, lovingly described, and all the aliens that got passing mentions could have easily just been from different parts of the planet for all I knew or cared. Even the ending, when Estri goes off into space, would have felt at home in a fantasy novel.

So our heroine, Estri, is some kind of sex queen on the planet Silistra. She runs the city, or “Well,” of Astria in some manner. Silistra is pretty great, we’re told. It’s at the heartbeat of the galaxy. The planet creates medicines that can cure most any disease and can extend life almost indefinitely, and it was also the center of a galaxy-wide sexual revolution some years ago. Most of the women are what amounts to a sort of classy prostitute, which is fine, and Estri is the best one in her city. Possibly on the planet.

The story begins with her getting a message from her mother. Her mom died in childbirth and the message is like one of those “By the time you get this I’ll be dead but just know I’m proud of you” things, except it also gives Estri a mission, which on her planet is called a chald, to find her father, who disappeared right after Estri was conceived. Just for good measure, Estri’s mom included the sex tape of her daughter’s conception in the message so the latter would be able to identify the guy because, I guess, sending along a still image would have been gauche. Also included in the care package is a ring that belonged to her father, which has an insignia on it that she might be able to use to find him.

Estri accepts this chald, which is a big deal for her people. Chaldra are like this planet’s combination of a warrior geas and a merit badge. Taking up a chald grants a chain that denotes what kind of chald it is by its color. When completed, the chain gets interwoven with a different color to denote that you follow through on your promises. Having a lot of completed chaldra is pretty important to the Silistrans, and Estri already has a lot of them, as you’d expect. There’s this whole culture surrounding this aspect of their life that, as you can probably guess, is described in great detail.

So Estri sets out. There’s a lot of walking around, and a lot of sex-having. Most of it is consensual, but there are parts of this book that warrant a trigger warning, so let me just throw that out there right now.

The thing about the sex in this book is that it was all rough. Estri, who relates this tale in first person, tells us more than once things like “it is the nature of men to conquer and the purpose of women to give them their conquest.” What it comes down to is that she gets forcefully taken in every sex scene. There’s some Fifty Shades of Grey stuff going on here, I guess. She’s essentially a high-class space prostitute, which apparently means that whatever a man wants to do to her, he can, and she’s got no say in the matter.

She meets this guy named Dellin, an off-worlder who is taking over an important post in a city named Arlet. Since Estri is going to Arlet, they figure they’ll go together. Estri likes him. We know this because apparently her boobs feel like they’re on fire whenever he’s around. Estri gets hotboob a lot in this book.

Anyway, Dellin seems like an all right guy until, somewhere along the line, they get jumped by some bandits. Bandits on this planet are called “chaldless” because, I guess, they don’t buy into the merit badge system. Whatever they are, they gang-rape Estri, who again pretty much takes it in stride. Two of the chaldless aren’t really into her, though, because they’re more fixated on raping Dellin. So they do. Finally Estri’s giant cat friend shows up and kills the chaldless, saving the day a little bit too late and then disappearing again.

Dellin changes and becomes harsh and mean. Estri can’t decide whether she loves or hates him, even when they meet a group of dudes called Slayers and he pimps her out to them like a common “coin-girl,” also against her will. Did I mention that he also stole her chald chains and her dad’s ring? He gives them back when they get to Arlet.

If this book had been written by a man, it would all come across as a sick sex/power fantasy where a beautiful, intelligent woman gets constantly degraded and secretly likes it. Instead, since a woman wrote it, it comes across as a perfectly reasonable sex/power fantasy where a beautiful, intelligent woman gets degraded and secretly likes it. At least I guess that’s how it was supposed to come across. I just don’t know.

Alternately, I guess you could read in some kind of feminist leanings where the point is that no matter how intelligent and powerful a woman is, she will still be degraded by all her interactions with men because all men want is power and sex and the power that sex brings and the sex that power brings. I suppose that’s valid.

Dellin and Estri show up in Arlet. Estri meets Arlet’s Well-Keepress, Celendra. At first they don’t really like each other, but they grow closer after Dellin and a guy named Sereth, a Slayer, chain them to a wall and rape them.

After all that, Estri finds a guy called a Day-Keeper, fills us in on a whole bunch of meaningless Selistran history, and learns that she needs to go look behind a particular waterfall because Sereth, the guy from the previous rape scene, found something that looks a lot like the ring Estri’s wearing. It might be a clue.

So Estri sets off again, this time guided by Sereth and his son Tyith. She finds Sereth quite attractive.

I swear, this woman spends more time mooning over people who previously raped her than I do mooning over old Star Wars action figures that are still in the original packaging. Jesus Heavenly Christ.

Sereth starts to be an all-right guy, and his son is actually a pretty sweet kid. He’s training to be a Slayer, like Sereth. The journey is long and arduous, both for me and the characters. There’s a sinister hooded man who keeps appearing to Estri in visions, telling her to turn back. There are problems occasionally. Some bandits attack and kill Tyith. This sends Sereth into a bit of a fugue. He becomes cold and bitter, more like he was before the trip, although I don’t think he ever rapes anybody.

They get to the waterfall. There’s what I guess was supposed to be a tender moment. Sereth leaves. Estri  goes into the cave.

There’s some weird technology in there, and a platform with a design like that on her ring. She decides that the logical thing to do is to lie down on it.

The book has about twenty pages left at this point.

She’s transported into a big glass box with no food or toilet. Over about a dozen pages she learns that she can shape things in the box to her will, making food out of some kind of brown stuff and making a part of the floor work as a serviceable toilet. Apparently those things are a test, because she’s let out by some people who look a lot like her father did in the sex tape her mom gave her.

There’s a sentence I hope never to use again.

They explain what’s going on. They’re some kind of ultra-powerful people called the Mi’ysten. They make stars and planets and stuff and are generally godlike. Because Estri’s dad was one, she is heir to some godlike powers, and so she starts training to use them.

In the meantime she strikes up a love/hate relationship with one of the Mi’ysten, a guy named Raet, who takes her forcefully. Just in case you thought all that stuff was over, I want to mention it.

Finally she meets her dad, Estrazi. He turns out to be the most powerful of the Mi’ysten.

It turns out that there’s a bit of a conflict among the Mi’ysten. A faction led by Raet wants to wipe out all life in the universe and start over again.

So there’s a court scene where Estri watches and then some guys go “Nah” and the universe is spared.

Her dad confers upon her the power she is heir to and the book ends.

WHAT

Okay, to be fair, there are three other books in this series, which I have no intention of reading, but I’m gonna guess that those are stories where SHIT ACTUALLY HAPPENS.

Oh my god this whole book was just wandering around from rape conga line to rape conga line and then finally the girl gets godlike powers and the book ends.

One thing I’ll say about this book is that it managed to really toe the line between boring the crap out of me and offending me in ways I didn’t know I could be offended.

There was so much detail in this book that I can’t say that it was poorly written. There’s a fine and weird line there. The author obviously put a lot of work into this novel, crafting a world and populating it with various kinds of animals and cultures, even if the animals are basically “big snake,” “big cat,” and “omnivorous horse.” At least they had names I could completely fail to keep in my head.

I want to point out that the book had so many names to keep straight, often names that came up a few times and then never occurred again, and in writing this review I managed to completely forget the protagonist’s name and ended up using her dad’s name (I mean, come on, the names are Estri and Estrazi) before I went back and fixed it. That was a lot of control-F, highlight, control-V. I think that says a lot about both me and the novel. Also, if you catch a rogue Estrazi in there, sorry.

There’s a lot to be sorry about when it comes to this book.


2 Comments

  1. Aaron Gullison says:

    FYI: the French title for the translation is “La Grande Fornicatrice de Silistra” (The Grand Fornicatress of Silistra)

    Like

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