It’s brilliant and you should just go ahead and read it and you don’t need to know anything else … unless incest (at a distance from the reader) really, really squicks you out (it happens but it’s not a huge focus and it’s not dwelt on greatly).
I know Butler didn’t write this as the first in the Patternmaster series but I am so glad I read it first, because Butler sets up the world of Doro and Anyanwu brilliantly; I can’t imagine coming to read this after already having been introduced to Doro, especially, in a different context.
There’s an enormous amount going on in this book. Doro and Anyanwu are very different from those around them: both seem to be immortal and both have talents that set them apart. Doro moves from body to body at will; Anyanwu can heal and change herself. Anyanwu has been living with her extended family and caring for them for generations; Doro has been building himself a people, gathering together individuals with some sort of psychic talent. One day Doro feels Anyanwu and goes to meet her, and Anyanwu’s life in particular changes. She hasn’t ever moved far from her birthplace, while Doro has been setting up colonies in America – this is the 17th century, and Doro and Anyanwu are both African (Anyanwu is Ibo, I believe; Doro… is something else altogether). So this means he’s trafficking in slaves, and working with slave traders. So that’s a whole thing: how people react and feel when they are enslaved, how the trading works and can be used, and so on. And somehow the fact that this is written by an African-American makes a difference. The very question about what makes someone a slave is key to the story, actually; how chains aren’t necessarily visible, how someone can become accustomed to the state – and asking the question about whether, if you don’t mind it, how bad slavery is. I think Butler firmly comes down on the side of it still being an evil, but she’s sure not making it an easy discussion.
Having two central characters who appear to be immortal means that Butler gets to write a story that goes over a couple of centuries. This allows her to explore the development of both individuals and communities, which she does really well. In some ways the people that Doro is developing are like a generation ship: they don’t know where they’re going, and it’s temporal rather than spatial, but they’re definitely on a journey. They just need to keep following orders and keeping the place running. The focus is really always on the relationship between Doro and Anyanwu, because their fraught relationship stands for everyone else: love and hate and need and resentment. Acceptance and rejection. Anyanwu is the one who changes and develops and grows, while Doro is largely static. There’s a variety of reasons for this – he’s that much older and has a very set purpose where Anyanwu is in some regards more passive (and in others really not) – but his lack of growth and change isn’t entirely presented as a positive.
It’s the complexity of Doro and Anyanwu, as individuals and in relationship, that makes this novel an absolute stand out. It bemused me somewhat when I finished reading that, really, very little actually happens: there are few really “significant” events like battles. Instead it’s a steady stream of small events. It’s a surprisingly domestic novel, in that much of it is focused on family and family relationships, centred around the home and small communities. But don’t be fooled – never has the idea of ‘domestic’ equaling ‘unimportant’ been less true.
I read this as part of “Seed to Harvest”, the compilation of Patternmaster novels. I was so engaged and intrigued that I moved straight on to reading the next novel (in internal chronology), because I couldn’t bear to leave the story.