I apologize for the longer than usual gap between posts, which was due to the disruption caused by having painters in my house. During all the moving of books I rediscovered a novel that I am making this week’s recommendation. The ugly cover of  `The Fishers of Darksea’ (bald men waving spears) nearly made me put it on the `going to the charity shop’ pile. Then I glanced at the first few pages and remembered why I had kept this book for so long. `The Fishers of Darksea’ is one of two novels with a Fantasy feel but some Science Fiction elements written by British author Roger Eldridge (1944-2007). Both are out of print and unavailable as ebooks but it is still easy to find cheap copies of the 1984 Unwin Unicorn paperback edition of `The Fishers of Darksea’.

In a version of our world, an Arctic tribe live on a volcanic island which they call Darksea. The tribespeople hate and fear Old Churny (the sea) and try to prevent the winter ice from ever touching their island. The strict rules which govern life on Darksea are enforced by Glorkas, the rarely seen Water Sorcerer, and Nemu, the Curer. As the story begins, two young men known as Mirth and No-Mirth, are trying to prove that they are worthy `to be admitted to the deep-house of the Fishers’ and join the elite of the tribe. Mirth and No-Mirth are Others, bound together from early childhood;  they share a wife and a destiny. Others are supposed to behave as one person but No-Mirth sometimes thinks and acts independently. This nearly costs Mirth his life during their struggle to kill a fang-walker (a walrus).

In the deep-house, Mirth sings the story of their conquest of the fang-walker. Nemu suspects that parts of the story are untrue, but the Others are accepted as Fishers and each receive a piece of the sacred Liferock to wear. Mirth is delighted to join the Fisherhood, even though it will involve hard and dangerous work. No-Mirth is unhappy that his new status sets him apart from his family and from his childhood friend, Anselm. He surprises everyone by giving the walrus-tusk he won in the hunt to his share-child, Mirth’s little daughter Liss-eht. When walking the cliffs by himself, No-Mirth sees a gigantic Fish circling the island. He is sure that this monster poses a terrible threat to Darksea but no-one will believe him.

No-Mirth tries to send a vision of what he has seen to the Water Sorcerer and makes an enemy of jealous Nemu. Mirth presses his Other to conform but when No-Mirth realizes that he has true-sight he begins to question the Seven Fear-laws of Darksea. Is it really true that his tribe are the only flesh-folk (humans) in the world and that everything that lives in or floats on the sea is evil? After a confrontation with Nemu, rule-breaker No-Mirth has to flee from the angry Fishers. In the bone-house, No-Mirth encounters a creature from the Warm. He learns the truth about his island and has an almost impossible choice to make…

With a hero named No-Mirth you can’t expect this to be a cheery novel but it is an interesting one and not as gloomy as my synopsis suggests. A major plot-twist about two-thirds of the way through the book is pretty clearly sign-posted right from the start.  You will probably think, `I know what’s going on here – it’s a people with superior technology observe and exploit a primitive society situation.’ This was indeed a popular plot-line in Science Fiction stories and television series of the 1970s and 80s but the variant in `The Fishers of Darksea’ does not develop in the way you might expect. One of the themes of this story – the dangers of exploiting wild places like the Arctic – seems more topical now than it was when the book was first published.

The great selling points of this novel are the intensity of Eldridge’s writing and the way that he completely immerses the reader in this isolated hunter-gatherer society. From the very first sentence, the physical setting of the story is astonishingly vivid – `A light wind idled across the rocky heights of Darksea, gathering steam from the spout-holes and making pale ghosts whirl across the water towards the fishwalk.’ With its mists, blizzards and unpredictable spouts of scalding steam, this barren island is a terrible place where the tribe is slowly losing its struggle to survive. Eldridge belonged to what I would call the anthropological school of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He builds up a detailed picture of how the people of Darksea think and behave and he invents convincing rituals, traditions and myths for the tribe. No-Mirth tells his Other-daughter the story of how the island was created when the radiant goddess Liferock emerged from her prison beneath the ocean `in a great fire-burst that made the brine boil’ and the ancestors of the tribe were born.

Anthropologists will tell you that not all tribes live in harmony with nature. The people of Darksea believe that they are alone in a hostile world. They think that the ocean is their enemy and that anyone who falls into the poisonous brine will die and become a nixie. The fate of each child in the tribe is decided by the Water-Sorcerer examining the guts of a fish. The children themselves have no say in what they will do when they grow up. The one person who questions his preordained role in the tribe and tries to find a new identity for himself is No-Mirth. He is unhappy being paired with Mirth when the real link he feels is with Anselm, whose fate is to live in the common-house rather than becoming a Fisher. No-Mirth has a grim outlook but he is humanized by his love for his share-daughter `the joy of his waking life’. The adult women in No-Mirth’s life, such as his share-wife, are too worn down by daily tasks to be interested in the status games that the men play.

At first it seems obvious that the ways of the tribe are primitive, brutal and ignorant and that No-Mirth is a hero for thinking as an individual but the story is more nuanced than that. The Fishers are brave and resourceful and the novel explores the benefits of thinking collectively as well as the drawbacks. No-Mirth himself recognizes that many of his actions have been selfish and that he is partly responsible for his disastrous relationship with his Other. When No-Mirth encounters beings from a very different culture, it gives him a better understanding of his own society. Some anthropologists claim that all cultures can be divided into just two types – ones that can cope with change and ones that can’t. `The Fishers of Darksea’ is a novel which makes you wonder if your own tribe will survive in an era of massive changes. Until next time….