Reviewed by Matthew Appleton
This review originally appeared in the September 2003 issue (#181) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.
One of the primary definitions of the word ‘snare’ in the Merriam Webster Dictionary is “something by which one is entangled, involved in difficulties, or impeded.” With that in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if Katherine Kerr was attempting some sort of bold statement with the name of her most recent novel, Snare. Was she trying to convey that the world of this novel might just entrap the reader just as it has entrapped its occupants?
The planet Snare is home to two species, the hu’mai (humans) and the indigenous life form, the Cha’Meech. Eight hundred years before the events of the novel, the hu’mai were left stranded on Snare, their colonization ships completely off course, disabled, and unable to return to human space. As a result, the Cha’Meech and the technologically advanced humans reached an agreement to ensure both species’ survival. The negotiations, finalized in a compact called the Landfall Treaty, were complicated by the fact that the humans were split into three camps: the ships’ crew and staff, a group wishing to establish an Islamic society, and a group of genetically engineered super-soldiers no longer needed by humankind and wishing to establish a new society to forget about their own past. The soldiers and the Muslims were supposed to settle on different worlds, but were forced to live with one another in addition to the Cha’Meech–an unexpected scenario that led the original human inhabitants to give the planet its name. While those colonists chose the name as a metaphor for their plight, the name ultimately takes on a prophetic connotation.
As the novel starts, growing political turmoil in Kazrajistan–inhabited by the Islamic hu’mai–threatens the fragile coexistence between the Cha’Meech and the separate human societies. The Great Khan is considering using his military to expand his grasp on the world. Kazraki dissidents get a message from his brother, Jezro Khan, thought dead for the past 15 years, who announces he is alive and well in an area far to the east of Kazrajistan. Sensing an opportunity, they decide to send Idres Warkannan, a former friend of Jezro’s and a member of the military, to find him and convince him that the country needs his return. The Chosen, a secretive order whose sole mission is to defend the Great Khan, find out about the revolutionary cell but is unable to completely ascertain the revolutionaries’ plans. They decide to send one of their own men, Zayn Hassan, on an undercover mission to flush out and trap the dissidents, Warkannan, with the help of his nephew Arkazo and Yarl Soutan, a self proclaimed “sorcerer,” are in the process of trying to bring down the Great Khan. As these four men set about their tasks, a chain of events begins that ultimately brings a number of other entanglements, difficulties and impediments.
At the start of his mission, Zayn finds himself living by the good graces of a comnee tribe. The comnees, the descendants of the genetically engineered soldiers, live on the eastern fringes of Kazrajistan and lead an existence very similar to that of of Native Americans in the Great Plains before the arrival of European settlers. Ammadin, their Spirit Rider (a kind of holy woman), is in the middle of a crisis of faith. Nonetheless, she continues serving the tribe until she can figure out a way to supply them with another Spirit Rider so that she may go off on her own to find answers to her questions, When she does, Ammadin takes Zayn along with her, having surmised that he too is facing some sort of crisis.
Zayn’s crisis is brought about almost by accident. While staying with the comnee, he realizes that he has found the place where he is most comfortable being himself. However, his oath to the Chosen, as well as conditioning he underwent when initiated, prevents him both from just deserting and from telling Ammadin what his crisis is. On his own with no one to turn to, Zayn’s crisis deepens when he finally discovers that Jezro, who was one of his best friends before his sudden disappearance and presumed death, is still alive. Now, in addition to conflicting loyalties to the Chosen and the comnee, he faces conflicting loyalties to the state he serves and one of the men who loved him best.
The entanglements become more complicated and greater in number as the characters move further along. Warkannan, deeply but not fanatically religious, starts having a crisis of faith as he starts to learn the truth about the history of hu’mai on Snare. Soutan, who eventually reveals he’s not a sorcerer but someone who is very knowledgeable about the technology of the original settlers, finds himself in a trap of his own making and is wanted by authorities for a rape made possible, in part, by the very technology he employs. Jezro, once found by Warkannan, despairs as a result of his Hobson’s choice: turn his back completely on Kazrajisun and allow his brother to subjugate and terrorize his subjects, or return to start a civil war, thus causing the death of thousands. However, these traps pale in comparison to the one threatening to envelop all of Snare, including the Cha’Meech: the impending and unpreventable failure of the Landfall Treaty and resulting implications.
While setting up these events, Kerr employs an illusion to draw the reader in. The 800-year history of the planet is only very gradually made clear to the reader, and as a result Kerr takes advantage of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In this novel, however, there’s a slight twist. The basis of much of the magic and religion the hu’mai encounter actually is science and high-tech instruments with forgotten origins and functions, and because Kerr takes special care to reveal the pre-story gradually, she gets to employ an early snare of her own: is this a fantasy or sf novel? This is an important question because of the differing reading protocols between the two. Kerr’s long success with her Deverry fantasy series only makes it harder to arrive at an answer. While she eventually makes it crystal clear (she does give a number of ambiguous hints before making it obvious), Clarke’s Third Law remains in play as many of the characters do not fully understand what they are dealing with throughout much of the novel.
Because the history of Snare is not completely revealed until nearly the end of the novel, Kerr repeats this game, in a fashion, throughout the rest of the book. Pieces of Ieftover colonist technology, often called “spirits” or “magicks,” litter the world. Throughout, Kerr provides clues and hints allowing the reader to figure out the science behind their operation before completely spelling it out. For example, she provides clues that much of the remaining technology is solar-powered and that the voice commands are in a forgotten human language. She does the same with many of the human myths and legends, giving clues to their origins and development before providing the whole story. Kerr deploys these clues with great aplomb, never once insulting the reader’s intelligence.
There is another theme throughout Snare: religion. Religion has played a pivotal role throughout most of human history and will likely continue to, given the almost universal need for faith-based systems, Since much sf is really about the present, in light of the events of 9/11 Kerr’s decision to have one of the three groups of hu’mai practice a modified Islam faith invites inquiries as to whether she’s commenting about Islamic extremism or the state of relations between today’s Islamic world and the Western world. Although Kerr avoids making broad, overarching statements about these issues, she does have a few things to say.
Obviously, Warkannan and Zayn provide Kerr with the most convenient lenses to filter her ruminations through. Warkannan presents a balanced approach to religion. A religious individual who takes the time to practice his faith as he was taught, he is also a practical and intelligent everyman. As a result, when he encounters evidence that convincingly and logically contradicts the religious aspects and beliefs of his education, such as when he discovers the true origin of humankind on Snare, which conflicts with what he learned, he adapts his faith to accommodate the new knowledge. It’s not easy for him to do, but he sees the necessity of it. Zayn, on the other hand, suffered as a result of the dark side of religious fundamentalism. His father made his life miserable and caused significant emotional damage because he displayed traits declared demonic by the mullahs. Zayn ultimately felt like an outcast in his own society, trying his best to hide his demonic talents out of tear of further ostracism. Yet, at the end Kerr seems to suggest that despite the many evils perpetrated under the guise of religious fundamentalism, there is a place for some aspects of it, as Zayn’s father, who became a cleric after Zayn reached adulthood, plays an integral role in creating a workable post-Landfall Treaty society.
Interestingly, Kerr uses Soutan for her strongest condemnation of fanaticism. His faith in the original colonists’ technology and the science behind it is just as fanatical and steadfast as that of a hard-core religious fundamentalist. His fervent belief that the original colonization ships are still intact and accessible leads him to abuse many others, including Jezro and Arkazo, in his attempt to reach his goal: the Ark of the Covenant–what Soutan believes to be the original colony ship and just one of many examples of an old Earth legend mutated into a new Snare legend. It’s because of his belief that technology can get him off the planet that Soutan also fervently believes as truth a book, The Sibylline Prophecies, that most just consider a compendium of legends and myths, It’s an unusual twist for an sf novel with religious overtones; the antagonist, one whose goals arc the most twisted, is the person who possibly understands the science of the original colonists the best.
Kerr’s examination of Islam is not the only religious aspect of the novel. She also takes the time to flesh out the religion of the comnees and the role of their Spirit Riders. Ammadin’s struggles with the faith she helps propagate only serve to bolster the pragmatic take on religion shown by Warkannan. Near the end of her spiritual introspection, Ammadin is asked, “What’s more important? Being happy or knowing the truth?” In the end, she chooses the truth. She does so because she feels it will make happiness easier to obtain. However, in choosing the truth she knowingly brings about the end of the comnee religion as it’s practiced and known.
In addition to allowing Kerr to create a few more subplots and a more complex story arc, not showing the humans as a united culture against the Cha’Meech gives the novel an added touch of realism. It also makes sense given the differing cultures from which the groups are descended, not to mention human history. Along with the fast paced storytelling, Kerr drags you in with her cast of flawed and engaging characters. Most of the people are just trying to do the best they can in the situation they’re in, and they succeed, fail and change based on their strengths and weaknesses. Just as important, she manages to avoid preaching when making her statements about religion and its role in society. Overall, Snare is a novel you’ll enjoy becoming engrossed in.