Fish Tails (Plague of Angels)
by Sheri S. Tepper
Review by Sam Lubell
Harper Voyager Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780062304582
Date: 21 October 2014 List Price $32.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
There is something about writers near the end of their careers that causes them to try to link up their previous work into one tidy package. Asimov linked his Robots and Foundation series; Terry Brooks connected his Word and Void series set in the present day with his high fantasy Shannara series; and by the end of his career Heinlein had his characters jump into fictional universes owned by others as well as his own. So, after 34 novels, it is not completely surprising that Sheri S. Tepper would do a crossover. Fish Tails, the third book in the trilogy started with A Plague of Angels, has guest appearances by three characters from her three True Games trilogies—Mavin Manyshaped from The Song of Mavin Manyshaped, Silkhands from the original True Games trilogy, and Jinian from Jinian Footseer.
Fish Tails is set on a far future Earth, long after the Big Kill wiped out most of the population. Plagues and ganger violence has destroyed most of the cities and technology survives mostly in isolated enclaves, the Edges, and the distant lands of Tingawa. Fish Tails opens with Abasio, a former gang leader and wanderer, Xulai, a Tingawa princess, and their talking horse Blue traveling in a wagon with their twin babies, the first sea children designed to survive underwater (and yes, they do indeed have the fish tails of the title).
The group is on a mission to warn people that the waters are rising and the Earth will completely be covered with water in just a few generations. They are looking for people willing to have their genes transformed so they can bear sea children of their own. But they have to be careful to avoid Lorpists who insist that people should not deviate from its traditional shape, and even attack people who have accidentally cut off a finger. Abasio and Xulai's story intersects with that of young Needly and her grandma who come from the extremely misogynist Hench Valley. Although just 10, Needly is a super-intelligent, super competent girl who proves very helpful in the book's adventures.
Throughout the book, Abasio has dreams of a place called Lom, which was settled by people from Earth. His dreams feature Silkhands, Jinian, and a six legged, six armed galactic officer nicknamed Fixit. But the crossover characters do not appear on Earth until very late in the novel. Much of the book is episodic, as the characters encounter various people who help or hinder their quest (the farm boy Willum who joins them manages to do both) and there is no real villain character. Gradually, a plot emerges as a griffin kidnaps Needly and Willum to force the adults to develop a way for her species to survive the rising waters.
Tepper is known for having strong environmental and feminist themes in her novels, which in a few books seemed to overwhelm the story. This preaching does occasionally pop up here, especially with Grandma's lectures to Needy about the monkey-brain people and many conversations about bao, a concept from the True Game books that is a combination of a conscience with the ability to predict the results of one's actions. Many of the themes in Fish Tails may seem overly familiar to frequent Tepper readers, but they still work here since this is a career capstone book. Ironically, the cause of the rising waters in this book is not global warming or anything done directly by man, but the result of galactic manipulation and world-spirits that could not possibly have been foreseen by even responsible humans.
Although characters from three of Tepper's early trilogies appear, for most of the book they are present only in Abasio's dreams. When they do appear in person, they are mostly passive plot devices. I find it hard to believe that Mavin Manyshaped, when given a whole new world to explore, would not fly off to look around and I was disappointed that Jinian had no philosophical conversation with Xulai. So, a reader of Fish Tails does not need to have read the other books; however, this book is a direct continuation of The Waters Rising, so readers do need to read that one first. An author's note summarizing the previous books appears at the end of Fish Tails, instead of at the beginning, which would have been more useful. The book is also long; at 700 pages this single book is longer than the collected original True Game trilogy.
Sheri S. Tepper is 85, so it would not surprise me if this were her last novel. If so, it would be a fitting conclusion to a noble career. Not only does it tie into characters from her first few books, it returns to her frequent themes of feminism, environmentalism, extinction, and bao. Tepper is a message writer who requires the reader to think and consider what she has to say. Yes, in some cases Fish Tails seems to repeat things she has said earlier, but the book can be considered as the final summing up chapter of the philosophical treatise that is Tepper's work.
Obviously, Fish Tails is not the place to start reading Tepper, but those who have enjoyed previous books of hers, even those who gave up on her when a novel turned too polemical, should read this whole trilogy – A Plague of Angels, The Waters Rising, and Fish Tails.