A version of this review was originally published at Goodreads and Live Journal. I read the new e-book edition.
Oh, how did I miss this when it first came out in paperback! This is a wonderful SF novel of the tradition I think of as cultural-anthropological SF. It was just re-released on e-book under the author's current writing name, Deborah J. Ross, but it's the same Northlight released in 1995 by Deborah Wheeler.
If I was to sum this story up in one sentence, I would say that Northlight is a tale about the many forms of love, regret, and second chances.
Kardith the Ranger is an exiled woman of the steppes who has found a home and a purpose working as a border ranger for the the country of Laurea on the planet Harth. When we meet her, she is in a panic, half-killing her beloved hill pony as she tries to reach the capital city in time to get permission to search for her partner, the Ranger Aviyya, who has gone missing in the badlands. Laurea is on the verge of war with the northern barbarians, and Kardith's superiors will not allow any ranger to go off on a fruitless rescue mission.
Kardith has a slim hope she can convince their beloved leader Pateros to give her that permission -- partly because her partner Avi is the daughter of a powerful government official, a woman who saw her people through a great plague and now tries to moderate the military's influence on their peaceful land. Kardith's hope fails when a would-be assassin strikes Pateros, leaving the capital in chaos.
As it turns out, Kardith has one person who believes in her and will help her. Avi's brother Terricel has grown up into a young man dangling at loose ends, relegated to his mother's shadow, his own future as a scholar threatened by his mother's power and fame. Terricel wants to help Kardith and the sister he remembers fondly. He's smothered by his mother's protection, and worried that something is rotten in Laurea -- something that the assassin's appearance reveals is ripening. Ever since he was a child, Terr has been uncomfortable in the great hall of the government, prone to "spells" that amuse those who feel nothing strange about the building. Terr has done all he can to help his mother hold the government -- now, it's time to make new choices.
Terr's a person who notices things -- like Kardith's awareness of something "wrong" before the would-be assassin even struck. Kardith has a talent for recognizing "breakers" -- the heart of a group, the focus of energy, the end point of a chain of events. Together they will discover conspiracy at home, secrets beyond belief and a future poised on the brink of disaster. Where do you go when you need answers, when myth may actually be history, and some kinds of progress may destroy an entire civilization? The barbarians go to Northlight -- and in the end, so will Kardith and Terricel.
The story starts with the Ranger, and this was a brilliant choice. Kardith's status as outsider turned Ranger, her hyper-aware training and her innate abilities are what tells you that something is rotten in the system -- and keeps you looking beneath the surface at every point. Things seem to take a breath once you reach Laurea and Ter's POV, but not really. Look closely -- it's a fine watch works moving with precision. Although the world is old and layered, the weight of it is light. We learn only what we need to know, even as other glimpses intrigue.
You will not forget the POV characters, or the others who help and hinder them on their quest.