ISBN 0812583388 - LCCCN 86-40415 Printed in the United States of America. Paperback, 398 pages. A TOR Book, published by Tom Doherty Associates Inc. in association with Warner Books, in May 1988. By Andrew M. Greeley, book design by H. Roberts, cover art by Boris Vallejo.
The Iona, a pilgrim vessel, seeks a planet on which to end their overly long pilgrimage. There is one very clear rule: they must be invited to land. There is also a very clear problem: their lengthy pilgrimage has taken a toll, both on the Iona itself and on the people aboard. They need to land, they need a final home. The captain, Abbess Deirdre Fitzgerald, chooses Seamus O'Neill to help their chances of an invitation along. O'Neill will land, posing as a wandering minstrel, and telepathically send information back to the Iona. The planet is thought to be on the verge of collapse, and there is reason to hope that the crew of the Iona will be welcomed as rescuers, soon. The plan works well, for all of twenty minutes. Things begin to spin out of control quickly for O'Neill, who discovers that the Zylongi society is extraordinarily dysfunctional.
A second race of people, the hordi, live outside the walls of the city. This race is clearly related to the Zylongi, but the Zylongi irrationally insist that there is no relation between them, leaving O'Neill to wonder about their denial. Not only is reproduction controlled, so is sexual activity - the population is paired, at birth, with their future mates and are "allowed" to have sex twice a year during a festival that encourages a frenzy of indiscriminate sex before a period of time set aside for sex with one's mate. Pregnancies that happen outside of marriage are terminated; imperfect children are "sent to god," as are adults when they retire. Various factions have emerged, some in response to their oppressive society and others made up of hordi and people expelled from society, and O'Neill must figure out who's who and where they all stand. While all this is happening, O'Neill has found his "proper woman," falling in love with a Zylongi woman, and become convinced that the Iona has left him behind.
Aside from his fiction books, which I've always enjoyed, I personally like Greeley for a couple reasons - we share a Chicago-area tie and A Stupid, Unjust, and Criminal War: Iraq 2001-2007. So I wanted to like this book before I even started it. There are things that appeal to me personally: the crew of the Iona are Gaels and their long-ago ancestors hailed from County Cook - not to be confused with County Cork - Chicago Nova in Greater Ireland, a far larger island far to the west of Little Ireland, a sly little wink that literally made me laugh out loud. The heavy sighs, happy skirt chasing and fierce warriors of O'Neill's Wild Geese are all appealingly Irish and their speech is peppered with recognizably Gaelic speech patterns. The Iona has a female captain and abbess! All of this, I love. I'm even, weirdly, a fan of Greeley's dragging Catholicism into outer space, far in the future, because he did it in a light-handed, loving way, prohibiting the pilgrims from religious conversion of others.
The story, however, has some issues for me. The tale is, periodically, told out of sequence, beginning at an end point and then going back to explain how we got to that point. I've never been a huge fan of this style and, in this case, find it sometimes disconcerting because I have a hard enough time keeping track of sci-fi things that exist only within this book. Also difficult for me to grasp and keep track of were the number of groups outside the primary Zylongi society. Young Ones, Hooded Ones, the Committee, a quasi-military band of hordi and outcasts... It wasn't just that they all existed, it was that it was so unclear what any of them really wanted. If the goal of everyone outside the primary society was to end that society, it would have seemed they'd band together at some point, which never happened. Last, the obvious genetic relationship between the Zylongi and the hordi and the vehement denials of it by the Zylongi seemed like a prominent story for a few minutes, then it got dropped and never picked up again.
Still, as someone who rarely reads science fiction, I was entertained and engaged.