For millennia the planet called Nevermore has been deserted. Only a handful of nomadic tribes remain, none of whom remember those who came before.
An expedition from Earth has been striving without success to solve the planet's mystery. Aisha, the daughter of the expedition's leaders, sets out to open a sealed tomb or treasury—but instead destroys it. Only one treasure survives, but that may hold the answer they have been seeking.
Captain Khalida Nasir of Military Intelligence has a quarter-million deaths on her conscience. Even in the solitude of Nevermore, her past will not let her go. The war she thought was ended still rages. Her superiors force her back into service, and dispatch her to a world that may also offer a clue to the mystery of Nevermore.
With a mysterious stranger, the sentient starship he liberates from torment and slavery, and a crew of scientists, explorers, and renegades, Aisha and Khalida set off on a journey to the end of the universe and beyond. What they find will change not only the future of Nevermore, but that of all the United Planets.
I first came to Judith Tarr's work through her historical fantasy novels. She makes made-up worlds live and breathe. Then she wrote a few historical novels, and brought the same skills to those works. I felt like I was living in the past.
When she moved to science fiction, her ability to write realistic worlds and characters rose to the forefront again, along with the innovation she always brought to her fantasy fiction. Fantasy fiction readers reward their writers by buying books in a series, not by giving awards, and Judy has continued to publish several series under a variety of names.
If you've never encountered her work before, you're in for a treat. If you've never read her science fiction, now's the time. And here's the cool thing: once you finish this novel, you'll have dozens more excellent Judith Tarr novels to read. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Evil government agencies, powerful psionics, tense diplomacy, ancient mysteries, the multiverse, and an intelligent starship…there's no slowing the momentum of the high-stakes adventure. Space opera fans will enjoy this lively story and its homages to the pulp SF era.– Publishers Weekly
Psionic powers and magic mesh with science in this enthralling adventure. Characterisation, human and non-human, is complex and layered. Determined Aisha. Cocksure Rama. Damaged Khalida. They all have a part to play. The setting is a multiverse full of diverse worlds from Nevermore to Araceli and Starsend via a free-trader's hub in the company of a worldly wise opera singer, a renegade Psycorps lieutenant and a boatload of angry scientists. The writing is often lyrical without being overblown, the tension is well-wrought and the pace fairly rattles along.
Highly recommended.– Jacey Bedford
A high-octane mix of space adventure, psi razzle-dazzle, scientific euphoria in discovery that will change the future, archaeological euphoria in discovery of the past, and cool space stuff stitching it all together. But Tarr does not lose sight of the characters, whose complexities deepen as they are tested to the max.– Sherwood Smith (co-author of the Exordium series)
Strong, appealing space opera.
FORGOTTEN SUNS is possibly the most immediately accessible book of Tarr's that I've read. Everything about it works beautifully, from Aisha's explosive introduction to the regrets and ambitions that drive the other characters. If you haven't read Tarr before and you like YA or space opera, I highly recommend discovering her through this book.– C.E. Murphy
Aisha had blown the top off the cliff.
It was an accident.
The parents had been excavating a circular mound on the eastern side of the old riverbed. While they argued over whether it was a palace or a temple, Shenliu wangled permission to explore across the long-dead river, where the cliff rose up sheer. He had climbed most of the way to the top, and found the opening of a cave there.
Shenliu was an artist with nuplastique. In the old days he would have fought in wars and blown up trains. Now he was a xenoarchaeologist, and he planned to blow a little hole, a tiny one, then drill down and open up whatever was below. Instruments didn't work so well on the cliff; all they could tell was that there was a larger cave inside, without any apparent way in or out.
Shenliu was set to open up the cliff before the end of the season, but then Mother and Pater found the room full of broken pottery. Shenliu had to forget about his cave and get to work cataloguing boxes of shards. He left the explosives in their locked box, away up in the cave where nobody was likely to go.
The night after he had to give up his project, Aisha had been awake long after bedtime, finishing just one more book. After she put the reader away and told the lights to go out, she heard the parents talking in their room down the hall.
Lately she'd been able to hear people through walls and even if they whispered. She had to close her eyes and listen very, very closely, but the words as often as not came through.
She might not have done it tonight, because it was late and she was sleepy, except Mother had that tone she'd had too much this year. Tight. Just a little too soft.
"I can't find any way to keep the expedition going past next season. We've put everything we have into it. Outside funding is getting leaner every Earthyear, and what sources we can scrape up are getting more and more insistent on actual, measurable, marketable results. Now Centrum's trying to gut the Department of Antiquities. We're done, Rashid. It's time we faced it."
Pater was harder to hear, but Aisha pushed herself almost to the point of headache, and his answer came clear. "We've been here twenty years. That's a good run by any standard. If we have to back off, regroup, we'll do it. The planet is a Perpetual Preserve. It will be here when we come back."
"Will we ever come back?" Mother had raised her voice. That was so rare it startled Aisha. "Once we've packed up and gone, you know what will happen. Centrum will find an excuse. The designation I fought so hard to get will evaporate. All those untouched resources, those empty continents, those seas that no one's sailed on or fished from in five thousand Earthyears—the feeding frenzy won't end till the world's stripped bare."
"We'll fight," Pater said. "The family has some power still. We'll hold off the Goths and the Vandals and even bloody Psycorps, at least for long enough to get new funding."
"If there is any," Mother said.
"Rashid," she said, flat and hard and so unlike herself that Aisha's stomach clenched into a knot. "You were raised like a prince. I wasn't. I know when doors are slamming shut. We're being pushed off this planet. There's nothing more we can do."
"There is one thing," he said. "We can find something that even the idiots in Centrum will notice."
"What? More potsherds? More scrolls and tablets in languages no one can read? Even a burial wouldn't do it by this point—if there had been one single bone left anywhere that we've ever been able to find. It would take a Rosetta Stone to even make a dent, and then we'd have to explain it to the idiots in ways they might begin to understand."
"I won't give up hope," Pater said. "I will not."
Mother didn't answer that. She'd shut herself off, turned away from him and gone inside herself where no one could reach, even Aisha.
Aisha never did sleep that night. By morning she'd made her plan. She crept out while it was still dark, sneaked into the stable and saddled her horse and led him out, to find her brother Jamal blocking the way. He had his own horse, whose empty stall she hadn't noticed in the dark, and he was looking even more like Pater than usual: scowling and trying to loom.
Since he was still half a head shorter than she was and built like a runner bean, that didn't play well. "You can't stop me," she said.
"I wouldn't waste the energy," he answered. "Whatever you're up to, promise it doesn't involve explosives."
She set her lips together.
He sighed. "Of course it does. Look, Aisha—"
"I have to do this," she said. "If there's any chance at all of saving the expedition, I've got to try."
"You know we'll be all right if we can't. Beijing Nine has been after Mother for years to take that endowed chair. We like Beijing Nine."
"To visit," Aisha snapped. "Not to live on. It's not home. This is home."
He didn't point out that when she was older, if she wanted those doctorates she planned to get, she'd have to live off Nevermore for years. That wasn't important, and he knew it.
He pulled himself up on Ghazal's back without another word. She mounted Jinni much more gracefully. The spotted gelding was off and cantering by the time she landed in the saddle.
Which was bad of him, but this morning she was as impatient as he was.
She'd watched Shenliu often enough that she thought she knew how to set a charge. There was treasure down below. She was so sure of it she could taste it.
She wasn't thinking about gold and jewels. She meant to find something much more important. Something that would save the expedition, and keep them from having to leave the world she'd been born on.
A Rosetta Stone, Mother had said. A key to languages that no one alive read, not even the nomads who followed the herds of giant antelope across the plains. They had no written language, no books, and precious few old stories. It was as if their whole culture had been mindwiped.
That was why Mother had named this planet of endless, empty ruins—which was designated MEP 1403 on the star maps—Nevermore. Pater held out for Lethe, but nobody else liked that. Nevermore it was.
Aisha knew that there was a key to the mystery somewhere, and she was going to find it. The cave was as good a place to start as any.
First she had to get in. It was hardly Aisha's fault that she mistook the amounts, and thought a unit of nuplastique was a whole stick. Afterwards, when the top of the cliff had fallen in and she and Jamal had barely got out before the earth swallowed them, she found out that a unit was a hundredth of a stick. Her little hole, just big enough to let a narrow-bodied girlchild through, had turned into a terribly big hole.
She was too crushed even to cry. There was a cave, but there was nothing in it. There had been a little gold and a jewel or two—mostly vaporized—but no real treasure at all. Not even a bone, or a word carved in a fragment of stone. Certainly no key to the mystery that they were all trying to solve. That they had to solve this year, or never do it at all.
Now the cliff looked like a broken tooth, starker than ever above the long-dead river, and Aisha and Jamal were on lockdown. No intersession off planet for them. Everyone else got to go back to civilization for a handful of tendays, but Aisha and Jamal stayed on Nevermore with Vikram, who had been in Spaceforce when he was younger, and Aunt Khalida, who was not talking about why she had shown up in midseason and gone to work cataloguing artifacts.
It was supposed to be a dire punishment. Pater hadn't said a word to Aisha since the cliff blew. Mother had. Aisha could still feel the blisters on her conscience a tenday later, after the shuttle had carried them off to the tradeship.
Usually Aisha looked forward to intersession. Mother and Pater went off wherever they had to, to pull together staff and funding, and Aisha and Jamal spent the time on Earth with the grandparents and a pack of aunts and uncles and the tribe of cousins.
This year she had a mission, and she had the whole world almost to herself. Jamal would do whatever she told him. Vikram was barely there, and Aunt Khalida spent most of her time in her room. Except for making sure Aisha was not about to blow up any more portions of the landscape, and checking the schoolbot's records every evening for evidence that the prisoners had done their day's assignment, she left Aisha and Jamal completely and gloriously alone.
Aisha wished Blackroot tribe was still in their camp outside the ruined city, but they had left for the summer pastures. That was too bad: some of them, especially Aisha's friend Malia, would have been interested in a treasure hunt. Aisha and Jamal had only themselves for company, and the horses, who were happy to spend most days roaming and grazing.
Within the first tenday they had covered every quarter of the city, and spotted a new edge of it, too, buried under grass out on the plain. That left the territory on the other side of the riverbed, and the broken cliff.
"I want to go back up there," Aisha said halfway through the second tenday.
"Oh no," said Jamal. "That's strictly off limits. You can't even think about—"
"I can't stop thinking about it," Aisha said. "I saw something before it all came down. I want to see if it's still there."
"Of course it's not," Jamal said. "It's all blown up with everything else."
"Most of what blew was the roof of the cave. There's still plenty left underneath. What I saw was down below. I'm betting it's still there."
He narrowed his eyes at her. "What was it? All I saw was rocks flying."
"I'm not sure," she said. "I just know there was something down there."
"Well, if there was," he said, "it's buried twenty meters deep."
"Maybe not," she said.
He was stubborn, but she was worse. They were both bored. At the very least, he finally allowed, they could ride over there and look—from a safe distance. It was better than dangling around the house.
Neither of them mentioned the other thing, the thing that made Aisha so determined to go back and look. She might not get another chance.
Not just because of the problem with the expedition. This was much nearer and more terrifying. She'd been carefully not thinking about it all year.
Aisha would turn thirteen after the new season started. Psycorps would test her then. If she passed, the Corps would take her.
Aisha did not want to pass. She wanted to be a xenoarchaeologist like Mother and Pater, and discover Nevermore's secrets, and keep it safe from Goths and Vandals and the bloody Corps.
Aisha didn't just hear things she wasn't supposed to be able to hear. She saw things, too. Once in a while, in the empty squares and the broken and deserted buildings, she could see people coming and going, and hear their voices. They walked in her dreams.
She had a good imagination, that was all. She had no psi. She was nothing that Psycorps would be interested in.
This close to noon, thunder was brewing over the plain. That set Jamal off again. "We can't go out in that," he said. "What if there's lightning?"
"It's a long ways off," Aisha said. "We'll be there and back again hours before it hits."
Jamal glowered and muttered and kicked a bit, but when Aisha finished saddling leopard-spotted Jinni, he was right behind her with bay Ghazal. The horses were fresh and full of sparks, like the air. They were glad to get out and run.
Nobody saw them go. Vikram was doing something in the house, and Aunt Khalida was locked up in her room as usual. Aisha made sure her lunch was safe in her saddlebag and her water bottle was full, and set off toward the dead river.
Horses did not like the area around the cliff. They had that in common with the native tribes. Horses, like tribesmen, thought there was something bad there—or not so much bad as powerful, and not in a comfortable way.
It made Aisha's skin shiver and her head itch deep inside, but it had never frightened her. Whatever was there had nothing against her.
The cliff felt different now its top was broken off. The strange feeling was still there, but it was much weaker. The horses barely shied from the cliff's shadow, and that was mostly habit. Whatever had been inside was—not dead. But the pent-up power had blown away, or else sunk so deep in the earth she could hardly feel it any more.
The storm rolled toward them over the plain, but it was still klicks away. Aisha and Jamal left the horses in the pen at the cliff's foot, slung on their backpacks and started to climb.
The horses had grass, and water that bubbled from a spring into a stone basin. Aisha carefully shut her saddle and bridle in the shed outside the pen, well out of reach of inquisitive noses. Jamal was lazy, and therefore not so careful, but that was his lesson to learn. If his saddle was still on the fence when he got back, Aisha would be surprised.
It was a long, steep way up. She took a deep breath and went at it.