Ventus by Karl Schroeder
Hardcover - 512 pages 1 Ed edition (December 2000) Tor Books; ISBN: 031287197X
Review by Ernest Lilley

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This is a really good book, regardless of whether you like SF or Fantasy, since it tells its story in both voices depending on which character you're following. Ventus is is a fast paced and engaging epic adventure from start to finish and an excellent example of Arthur Clarke's rule that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It is interesting to note how fashion changes casting. The center of this tale, which is a classic hero's saga in many regards, is Jordan, a young man who has never left his village. When the story opens he has just turned seventeen, and assumed the mantle of adult and his family vocation of mason. The other three principle characters are from off-world. Armiger, who once was a man, but is now a construct of 3340, an AI who would have subjugated all of humanity, Axel Chan, adventurer, explorer, pleasure seeker, and the Lady Calandria May, essentially a secret agent, reminiscent of William Gibson's Molly from Neuromancer, trained by an organization but now freelance, Calandria had given up her humanity to destroy the AI, and has come to Ventus to extinguish its last spark, carried to what it hoped was ready tinder, the Winds of Ventus. Once upon a time all three of these characters would have been rolled into one charismatic male hero, but fortunately for us, contemporary culture has given each the opportunity to explore greater depth and diversity.

When Armiger came to Ventus, he dispatched some of the nanotech that maintains his form to others, providing him with links to their senses. Jordan was one such, and the agents  turn this to their advantage by co-opting the link to find Armiger. What they fail to anticipate is that between the two efforts, Jordan begins to receive as well as send, and much to his distress begins to lapse into trances where he see and feels whatever is happening to Armiger, who is largely ignoring his remotes, because he has bigger troubles. 

Armiger did come to Ventus at the bidding of an 3340 to take over the world and the Winds of Ventus, but after the army he raises is destroyed by the Winds and he is killed, resurrected, and nursed to health again by a widow, enough of the man he once was comes to the fore to challenge his goals. Calandria came to kill Armiger rather than let the AI get a foothold among the machine intelligences that permeate Ventus and despite her assertion to Jordan that she is as human as he, she has spent most of her life as a tool of others, schooled in deadly arts and filled with nanotech, and has just come back from abandoning herself to enslavement by the 3340 so that she could attack it from within, a trick few could have managed. Her companion, Axel, is a cheerful trader and spy much in the mold of Sean McMullen's sociable protagonist John Glasken, from his Souls in the Great Machine saga, or even a younger Nicholas Van Rijnn from Poul Anderson's Psoleotechnic League series. A lover when possible, a fighter when need be, he provides a counterpoint to Calandria's dogged single-mindedness. 

There are others equally well realized, but less central. The Nobility and the Priesthood of Ventus are in balance, more or less, and the Winds swirl around them, tolerating with decreasing patience, the humans that they were intended to serve.

Humanity's forces stand poised to sterilize Ventus of all life, biological and artificial, rather than let 3340 take root and challenge them again. Calandria and Axel are in a race against time to stop Armiger and perhaps even solve the mystery of the Winds, who were sent to terraform Ventus for the human settlers who would come later. Though they did prepare the world for humans, when the settlers arrived they found that the machines were not willing to turn over the leys to the world to them, though they were willing to maintain an uneasy coexistence with them. Thus ensued hundreds of years of mankind building a feudal society surrounded by a living world full of "mechal" creatures and visited by the AI gods they know as the Winds whenever the humans stray outside a strict ecological covenant with forbids them building an industrial base.

All this is coming to a head as the saga unfolds. The Winds are tiring of the pesky biologicals running around, the human settlers keep trying to develop technology that the Winds won't destroy and Armiger is roaming the land trying to find himself, to decide whether he is still a man or just the agent of an AI. All the while Jordan is following the path of the hero, though reluctantly, and Calandria grimly tracks her prey. A great story deserves a great cast, and Ventus provides both.

Ventus is a rich book, well written and thoughtfully conceived, and highly recommended.