Set on a distant planet, far in the future, West of January tells the story of a world in which the sun moves across the sky with agonizing slowness. It takes lifetimes for a region to experience dawn, midday, and dusk, and because of this the planet's population does not remember the catastrophes that occur as the sun moves across the sky—entire civilizations have been scorched into oblivion. The only people who remember the dangers of the past are the planet's "angels"—a people who have tried to preserve past technologies and ancient knowledge, and who work to try to save the other people from the destruction that threatens them when the sun moves.
The hero of this book, Knobil, was born among the herdsmen, a primitive civilization in which the men kill one another and exile their sons so that each man can have as many women and children as possible. Knobil, however, is the son of an angel, and his destiny leads him to move among all the other peoples of his world—the beautiful but unthinking seafolk, the cruel slavers, the manipulative traders, and, worst of them all, the spinsters whose deadly secret he discovers nearly too late. This action-filled story of a very strange planet showcases Duncan's remarkable ability to create unique worlds.
Shortly after I started writing professionally, I sat on my first panel at a genre convention, an unknown among established pros. One of my fellow panelists was Dave Duncan, and I still remember his gracious welcome to a newbie. Dave is an international best seller and an acknowledged master of epic fantasy and science fiction, with fifty novels and over a dozen series. Last year, Dave was inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Association Hall of Fame. West of January is a standalone SF novel and a great introduction to his work. It also represents the earliest Aurora Award winner in this bundle, and I'm thrilled to be able to include it. – Douglas Smith
"Painted in bold strokes with pleasingly offbeat and entertaining results."– Publishers Weekly
I was still very young when I first saw an angel, yet so great was the impression made upon me by his visit that it remains my earliest memory, like a most distant tree at the limit of vision on an empty plain. Or so it seems, for all I truly remember are a few vague images enclosed in mist, recalled in later times. Inevitably the details have been smeared and entangled with details of other visits by other angels, when I was older and better able to understand. Even that first time, though, tiny as I must have been, disturbed and troubled me. What I recall most clearly is a small child's sense of injustice and betrayal.
The herdfolk divide a man's life into five stages, and at the time I barely could have reached the second, the toddler stage. I can retrieve no other specific event from those far-off times, only a general blur of memory, of the soil that nurtured my infant roots. All of the landscapes have merged into the endless rolling grassland of my youth, and all weather has become the constant golden sunshine of childhood. Certainly that sunshine was spotted by showers. Certainly among the little hills lay innumerable sloughs and watering holes, set in their guardian clutters of cotton trees. It was by those that we camped. But again all those are merged, one into another. I remember sitting in my mother's tent, listening to rain and the thump of cloth beating in the wind, spraying me with a fine mist. I remember playing on the edges of wide stretches of blue water, immeasurably vast to a toddler. And yet all storms are now one storm in my mind; all rainbows, one rainbow; all lakes, one lake. In truth those little ponds were larger then, for they did dwindle as I grew, but to the small eyes of a small child they seemed most terrifyingly huge and clear and shiny.
Angels were the only visitors the herdfolk trusted or made welcome. The herdfolk honored angels, admiring their lonely courage and self-reliance, valuing the information and counsel that an angel could bring, his advice and his warnings. In return, the herdfolk freely offered their humble hospitality—food and shelter and safe rest.
I do not recall the angel's arrival. I do not know who first noticed him coming. Most likely it was my father, for little escaped his notice by land or sky. We may have been camped, or we may have been on the move, but if that was the case, then the tents would have been pitched again at once.
The earliest of all my memories is of that angel sitting at my father's side, cross-legged on cushions on a rug. Behind them were the tents—four of them, for at that time my father owned four women. Later he had six, and when I was a herdboy I was proud of his wealth, but when the angel came he had but four. The rug, the tents, and the cushions were all made of wool from our own herd, all striped and checkered in saffron and scarlet and vermilion, eye-nipping bright in the harsh white sunshine, squatting on small puddles of black shadow.
The visitor must have alarmed me already to have made such an impression. He was a great contrast to my father, for like all herdmen, my father was enormous. He outweighed any two of his women, and even sitting, he towered over the angel. In fine weather he wore only riding boots and leather breeches. He had little need for a shirt to protect him from the sun, for his thick black hair flowed down to mingle with the dense fur on his shoulders and back. His great beard merged into the pelt on his chest and belly. In only a few places, such as the sides of his ribs and the undersides of his forearms, was any of my father's walnut skin ever visible.
The angel, in contrast, was blond and slight. His face was clean-shaven and ruddy. His boots and even his breeches may have seemed unexceptional to my childish gaze, but his upper half was enclosed in a leather shirt, open down the front because of the heat, and decorated with very alarming fringes. He had fringes on his trousers, also, and he carried a broad-brimmed hat. Horrified, I clung to my mother's gown and peered around her as if she were a tree.
Doubtless the crowd of older children had streamed in from the herd to sit wide-eyed, observing the visitor. I do not recall. Doubtless the women had blushed and simpered as they prepared and served the best feast they could assemble. And doubtless, also, each had donned the finest, brightest gown she owned to honor the angel. My father would have expected these things of them.
The meal ended. I recall the four women lining up and my father leading the angel forward to look them over. The tents were at hand. My father would have made the customary offer. Vividly I recall my terror when the angel's eyes met mine. They were a brilliant blue, and I had never seen blue eyes before. I buried my face in my mother's dress.
Of course, this monster did not want me. But my mother was the youngest woman. I expect she had already recovered her figure after bearing my sister Rilana. My brother Uldinth may well have been conceived by then, but not showing yet. Obediently she set off toward her tent, and the stranger followed.
My aunt Amby scooped me up and held me. I screamed at my mightiest pitch. I do not need memory to tell me that, for a herdfolk toddler was never separated from his mother, even when his father came into her tent. Older children were banned at those times, lest they snigger or be tempted to copy the games their elders played, but among themselves the herdfolk were not prudish about mere toddlers. An angel, though, was an honored guest who would normally have been granted privacy to enjoy his rest and recreation.
Yet in this case, I was released. The angel stood aside, and I rushed for the tent flap as fast as my stumpy legs would take me. That was unusual, and the angel himself must have interceded on my behalf.
And the image that follows is the clearest of all—of my small self sitting on the rug in a corner of my mother's tent, sucking my thumb, watching the angel take his pleasure with her. Certainly I must have seen my father do that many times, yet I have no recollection of doing so. I have only a vague memory of the details. I assume that the angel's methods were quite orthodox. I doubt that the actions bothered me, the urgent movements, the moans and gasps of pleasure. I must have known that those were normal. The tent was hot and dim. The lovers' bodies moved in spangles of color as the sun shone through the cloth. I remember the setting clearly, for it was my home.
What remains most strongly in my memory is the sense of wrongness. This was not my huge and dark-furred father. This smaller, smooth, pink person did not belong there on my mother, and somehow my young mind resented him. When he had done, when they were at peace again together, soaked and panting, my mother stretched out an arm for me. I remember that. Probably it was her custom at such times to reassure her child that he was loved also, to cuddle him between my father and herself. I have vague half-memories of warmth and closeness, of soft breast on one side, of hard and shaggy chest on the other, of sweat and thumping hearts.
This time, I know I refused her summons and shrank away. I remember the stranger raising his head to smile at me—and again his brilliant, terrifying, blue-blue eyes.
He slept then—being an angel is a tiring business. My mother lay and held him, and I stayed in the corner. Perhaps I slept also. I think that he made love to her again when he awoke, and that again I refused the offer of comfort afterward. Then he dressed and departed. Quite likely he was fed a second time before he raised sail. That also was the custom.
He never returned, that blue-eyed, golden-haired angel. It would have been astonishing if he had. But I am sure that that was not his first visit to my father's tents. I remember his smooth-skinned pinkness, his smallness, his smile, and his uncanny bright blue eyes—but I cannot recall his face.
I have a clear memory of the way he lifted his head from my mother's breast to speak to me. I do remember his smile. But the face that memory insists on putting there is the face I would see when I was older, in a mirror. My hair was golden once. My eyes, also, are a brilliant blue.
I was born somewhere in the west of January, probably near the middle of Wednesday. I cannot locate the spot more closely. Even if I knew it exactly—even if there was a bronze tablet there to record the event—I could not name it for you. In Heaven they tell of other worlds than Vernier; they tell how people on some of those worlds give names to places. I found that idea almost as incomprehensible as the measurement of time. People and even animals could have names, I thought, but not places, and on Vernier place-names would be a useless exercise anyway. Until the saints taught me otherwise, I had little concept of time or space. "Now" and "here" were all I knew.
The angels define the world by strips—twelve strips running north and south, seven east and west. The names of these are very old, given by the firstfolk. It is a sensible arrangement with only nineteen words to be learned. Any place can be located by reference to this grid. The west of January is but one example. Geographical features can be named also, like the March Ocean or the Wednesday Desert. This is much easier than remembering an endless arbitrary list, and much more practical when a forest may soon become a desert, or a desert ocean.
There are a few exceptions. There is the Great River, which in my youth flowed in one direction, later in the other, and now flows not at all. The larger mountain ranges have names—Urals, Alps, Andes. The saints in Heaven tell of greater yet: the Himalayas, which will not reappear until after I am gone. There is the South Ocean, which is at times little more than a sea, and the North Icecap, which is always an icecap, although it waxes and wanes. Even Heaven moves.
It is of the angels that I would speak, yet here I am rambling along in an old man's style about geography and my childhood. I promised to tell you of Heaven and the angels, of how they failed me and I deceived them . . . Well, I shall, but the way there leads through tales of my youth, of hatred earned, and love betrayed. I have little to boast of and much that would be better left not said, but I shall tell it all. What cause would I have to lie to you now?
The world is a hard place, and I have done my share to make it so.
I have told of my birth and toddlerhood. Toddlers in turn became herders, and herders . . . herders become loners. I remember when I saw this happen to Kanoran. It must have been a common enough event while I was still too small to realize what was happening. This time I understood better, either because I was older or because I was especially fond of Kanoran. He was kind to me, often stopping the others when they mocked my sun-bleached hair and azure eyes. Like my earlier vision of the angel, Kanoran's departure stands out in my memories like a single storm cloud in a clear sky.
We had just completed a move. Wednesday-in-January is an icefield now, but in my youth it was all rolling grassland—baking hot, mostly, and growing hotter. In fact it was insufferably hot, but we were used to it and knew no better. The low hills were frequently stony and rough, all heaped and jumbled without pattern; many of the hollows still held swamps or ponds.
The herd was always grazed in a spiral outward from the camp. When the distance became too great, four out of the two hundred or so would be routed back to serve as baggage animals, and the rest dispatched in whatever direction my father dictated. Each of his women would gather up her few possessions and her tent, put them on a travois and the travois on a woollie, and set off with her toddlers and her current baby.
As always my father had chosen our next campsite in a small hollow where there was standing water. Woollies need no water but people do, and so did his precious horses—herdfolk have no dogs, because roos eat them. The slough would give us drink; the trees, shade and firewood. There would be birds to net and birds' nests to raid, and sharp-eyed herder sling-men would soon locate the nearest miniroo warren.
This, I think, had been an unusually long trek, or else I was a very young herder still, for I had been allowed to ride part of the way on one of the baggage woollies. But we had arrived at last. My father had ridden in, also, having satisfied himself that no dangers lurked in the vicinity. I was jumping up and down in my eagerness to rush over to the new pond and fall in, for we youngsters lived more in the water than out of it, but before anything else happened, the whole family had to give thanks to the Almighty for leading us safely to this haven. That meant that we had to wait for the older children who were bringing up the herd. Woollies cannot be hurried.
Native to the hot lands of Wednesday, woollies seldom stray even into the southern edges of Tuesday. For all their enormous size, they are very primitive. Their dense siliceous coats maintain the high body temperature they need and also protect them from predators. Woollies never move faster than a walk, but they never stop moving—rounded stacks of gray wool, eating constantly, crawling endlessly over the landscape, with only a short pink snout protruding at the front. They have three small eyes in the snout, although they see poorly. Turn the snout with a stick, and the woollie will change direction.
The woollies loomed as large in my childhood as the unbounded land itself or as the burning-metal sky. I took them all equally for granted, essential components of a world.
At last the herd crept into view over a distant ridge. The herders came running in to join us, and my father called for the first hymn. After that he led us in prayer and then a second hymn. We children sang almost all the time, but his strong bass voice inevitably reminded me of thunder. Our faith was simple: we believed in a Heavenly Father who must be obeyed. If we were good, we would go to Paradise; else, to Hell. I grew up believing that Paradise must be very much like the grasslands, with a plentiful supply of dashers for food and miniroos for sport. Hell, I had been informed, was cold and dark. As I had never met either cold or dark, my ideas of Hell were vague. It mattered little, for we had few opportunities to be bad.
As soon as the service was ended, we small ones raced off to enjoy our bath. Some older children were sent to guide the herd again, for woollies are too stupid to be natural herd animals and would scatter like seeds if left unattended. Several boys headed for a nearby miniroo warren to launch a massacre—looking back, I am sure they benefited more from the exercise than from any meat they caught, although a miniroo is a tasty treat when spitted, charred over hot coals, and eaten whole. The women had a fire to build, tents to pitch, and screaming children to feed. Babies were always raised on woollie milk so that their mothers could conceive again as soon as possible.
When I came dripping back to report on the pond, I found Aunt Amby and my mother just about to milk one of the baggage woollies before it was returned to the herd. They had enlisted the aid of Kanoran, largest of the boys. Each took a travois pole, thrust it under the beast, and heaved. It always seemed like a miracle that human muscles could move such a mass, but slowly the woollie toppled over on its side. As long as its snout was then held off the ground, it was helpless and could be milked—unless it contained a dasher. This one did.
Pink and hairless and incredibly fast over short distances, the dashers are the woollies' males. They live on milk from the rear teat—the front teat is for the young—and they have no teeth. They do, however, have truly vicious claws. A dasher roasted is the finest feast in all Vernier, and catching them was the greatest sport in our childhood. Like all herdmen, I still bear dasher scars. The wounds can easily go bad, and I lost several brothers to the game; my sisters always seemed to have more sense.
Of course, the dasher did what dashers always do—streaked to the nearest woollie to take cover. As often happens, there was already another in residence. One or the other—they cannot be told apart until they start wounding each other—emerged at once and headed for another woollie. The procedure was due to be repeated until the refugee found a vacancy or was killed, but in this case Kanoran made a wild leap and threw himself on the second dasher—or perhaps it was the first dasher at its second appearance—and expertly snapped its neck before it clawed him to shreds.
To kill a dasher single-handed was a noble feat. Kanoran proudly delivered his prey to the cooks and then went strutting around, letting us lesser folk admire his gashes while they were still bleeding. And admire we did, secretly wishing we had some like them. The girls started singing a hero's song.
Milk and woollie meat were our staple diet; roast dasher was our delicacy. Soon everyone not herding had drawn close, tugged by that seductive odor. Even my father, who had been grooming his horses, came striding over, the currycomb still in his hand.
We all rose, of course, even the toddlers. One of the women said timorously that the feast was not quite ready yet, but my father ignored her. He was staring hard at Kanoran, as if he had been overlooking him recently. Proud hero shrank into cowering boy beneath that fearsome gaze.
"Raise your arms, lad."
Kanoran obeyed in silence, a guilty pallor seeping into his face. One of the women—his mother, I suppose—choked back a sob at what was then revealed, and I think it was that more than anything else that imprinted the scene on my memory. I was certainly too young to understand what terrible sin had been committed. The meal was forgotten. My father glanced at Aunt Amby, and the distress in her face disturbed me even more.
"Olliana, sir?" she whispered.
He thought for a moment, then nodded. He led the trembling Kanoran aside. They walked together up a nearby hillock. They sat down and talked. My father talked; his son listened.
He was a good man. Some herdmen take the word loner at its literal meaning. I saw this done later, but my father was not so cruel. Indeed, he was generous. I do not know what facts of life were imparted in those talks, for I never received one, but I suppose only the obvious—sex and how it worked; custom and dangers; angels, perhaps, and traders; and certainly the incest taboo, for the herdfolk take that rule very seriously.
When the long talk was ended, Olliana was waiting, dressed in a fine new wool robe of many colors. On her back she carried a bundle that the women had made up for her—food, I expect, and a knife, and a pot maybe, and tinder. Eyes downcast, she walked at her brother's heel as he left the camp.
However much his inner self may have quaked, Kanoran bore his head up bravely as he walked away into the world. He did not look back at us sobbing children. He wore only his calf-length woolen pagne. He carried only a sling but he was allowed to take four woollies, and two people could live easily on the milk from four woollies. Some fathers gave more than four then, but few gave a woman as well. In those times a woman was worth ten or a dozen woollies. Later the price dropped to one or two.
Woollies move slowly. The tiny herd of huge creatures was visible for a long time, trailing slowly away over the ridges. The boy and girl beside them were smaller, and they vanished sooner.
I saw this scenario happen many times as my brothers and half-brothers grew older—footprints on my trek through childhood. My father, I suppose, was aging; thus, his family also. Puberty rites came more frequently as I grew to be a herder, helping the older children at first, then teaching youngsters in my turn. Never did we think of herding as work. It was what life was. Children herded woollies. Women cooked and made babies. They also spun wool; they wove and dyed and sewed cloth. Men—but we only had one man to study.
He was never idle, never at peace. Mostly he rode his horses, each in turn, tiring them long before he tired himself and endlessly scouting the countryside for signs of strangers—strangers were dangers. Of course, we children did not know that. I remember him returning once with blood on him. The women told us that he had fallen, but probably he had taken an arrow.
He wore boots and leather breeches. In wet weather he would add a poncho and a broad-brimmed hat. A knife hung at his belt, a sword and bow by his saddle. He practiced his archery often, letting us boys watch him and run to retrieve his shafts, but never allowing us to try for ourselves. Slingshots were permitted—indeed, we were encouraged to become proficient with them. A sling is a good weapon against small game and predators, but only at close range. Arrows carry farther. Thus he taught us the principle of archery, but withheld the skill. He never explained the reason for that, and we should not have believed him if he had.
His face I can still see clearly, but always outlined against the roof of a tent or against the sky. His hair and beard were dark and flowing, and the glitter of his black eyes was the terror of my dreams. More imposing than anything else in my existence, even the landscape itself, my father ruled his family without raising voice or hand. No one ever hesitated or questioned. He was impassive and rarely spoke, but by the standards of the herdfolk he was a good man. He must have had a name, but I don't know what it was.
He spent much of his life on horseback, scouting the land in all directions. A horse is a four-legged, two-eyed mammal, much smaller than a woollie, but much faster. Horses were another symbol of wealth, and eventually my father had three of them.
So we knew that children grew larger, and we knew what women did, and we boys respectfully studied my father. As I said before, he was a good man by his own standards. He was kind to me, without cause. Disposing of unwanted babies is an ancient and widespread human custom but he had let me be, although he must have known I was not his. I was always small for a boy. I had gold hair and blue eyes, unlike everyone else in the family.
No, he was not my father, but I can think of him in no other way. I used to think his name was "Sir," until I heard him use that word himself to a trader.
Traders were rare, although more common than angels. We saw their caravans only from afar and their womenfolk not at all. Likewise, whenever traders were around, my father would order his older daughters and his women into the tents. Trading was done on neutral ground, with us boys trotting to and fro, carrying out the cloth or yarn my father sold, bringing in the wares he bought. I remember it as being hard work, for woollie wool is heavy. I envied those wealthy traders with their many horses.
Traders seemed very small men to us herders, but very grandly dressed. Their shirts were exploding rainbows of color; their trousers garishly decorated with beadwork and piping. They wore short pointed beards, and hats with curled brims, and jeweled swords dangling at their sides.
Small or not, they frightened me—I was scared my father would trade me off for something. That is not as foolish as it sounds, for the traders often had girls to offer. He bought his fifth woman, Rantarath, from traders. I was old enough to notice how much cloth she cost and young enough to think she could not possibly be worth it. But my father never sold off his surplus daughters—he gave them away to his sons, which in a herdman was true generosity. What he did trade was cloth and wool. In exchange he acquired pots and tools, dyestuffs and medicines . . . a new sword once, I recall . . . a better horse. Our needs were simple.
The sun always shone. Rain became scarce as I grew older. Life continued with few interruptions to mark its passing. We ate when we were hungry and slept when we were sleepy—outdoors, curled up on the sun-warmed grass by the tents. Except on a move, there would always be some of us asleep and some awake, but the life of the camp continued regardless—children singing, pots clattering, the click of looms, the crack of wood chopping, the laughter of the toddlers.
Only when my father was sleeping were we told to keep quiet. He never slept alone. He honored each tent in turn, playing no favorite—unless, of course, a woman was due to conceive again and needed special attention. It might seem like a very fine life for a man, if the risks were not considered.
He knew the risks and he took precautions. He scouted far, studying the grass to see where other herds might have passed recently. He watched, too, for roo packs, although once in a while roos would slip by him and come bounding through the camp, hoping to catch an undefended toddler. Woollies were armored against roos, but we were not. Often my father would return with a dead roo dangling from his saddle and a bloodstained arrow in his quiver. Roo meat was second only to dasher in flavor, and their leather is the finest of all.
Those roo attacks were landmarks in an otherwise uniform existence. There were few others—visits by angels or traders, other herds passing in the far distance. And puberty.
My older brothers and sisters disappeared, two by two. Imperceptibly I became one of the oldest. Traders became rarer and angels more common. Trouble is angels' business. They knew what was happening. They must have told my father, but he may not have believed.
We children certainly knew nothing of that. I had been born in January, when the sun had been roughly over the January-December line. Now we were into February, and the sun stood high to the east, apparently motionless and unchanging. Yet the winds grew lighter, ponds rarer, rain less frequent. The grass was sparser, more grazed by other herds; dungheaps were more numerous. My father must have been finding greater and greater difficulty in directing our progress.
On the face of it, he was prospering. He had more woollies for milk and meat. More food would support more women to breed more children to herd more woollies. The other herdfolk prospered also.
But the sun does move, and ahead of us lay the March Ocean—and inevitable disaster.