Long-range quasi-sequel to the post-catastrophe yarn A Plague of Angels (1993), another odd blend of magic, science fiction and idealism.
Perhaps a thousand years after various man-made disasters culminated in the Big Kill, the world, for the most part, is peaceful and agrarian. Technology is largely forgotten—except where the plot requires otherwise—but, for some never-explained reason, the seas are rising due to a vast and unrelenting ingress of fresh water. In Norland, the dying Princess Xu-i-lok makes a last request of her "soul carrier," Xulai, to venture into the haunted woods and retrieve a mysterious gem. Fortunately Xulai will have the assistance and companionship of Abasio, the hero of the previous book, now a traveling dyer, and Blue, his talking horse. Xu-i-lok tells Xulai to swallow the gem and then dies. Xulai, formerly childlike in body and mind, abruptly becomes a young woman, with many of Xu-i-lok's memories and abilities. Her task is now to convey Xu-i-lok's soul home to distant Tingawa—a meandering journey with frequent lengthy pauses for description or genealogical recitation. Xu-i-lok was murdered by the unspeakable Alicia, Duchess of Altamont, who plans to rule Norland with her homicidal mother, Mirami. Lurking in the background is the Old Dark Man, Alicia's sponsor, a monster from ancient times. Unfortunately, the evildoers are evil because they were programmed that way, so their motives hold no interest, and the plot must be urged forward by periodic gushes of improbable exposition.
For 20 years Tepper has turned in one dazzling performance after another, but not even her formidable talents can rescue much from this wreckage.