Terra Insegura is Edward Willett’s sequel to Marseguro, the novel which introduced us to Richard Hansen and Emily Wood, protagonists of this story. As a sequel, the book definitely jumps into the middle of the action – while Willett does an admirable job of bringing the reader up to speed with the events of the previous novel, I did have to go back and reread Marseguro to get my bearings before diving into this new adventure.
The plot of Terra takes place about 6 months after the end of Marseguro, and deal with the fallout from those events. Many of the characters are the same, even if the location is entirely different. The action is tight and well-written, and the reader can sympathize with the difficult decisions that the characters have to make (to a point, it should be noted – the fanaticism evidenced by the Avatar is unfathomable and out of step with the consideration the other characters give to their decisions).
Chris Keating, the “villain” of the previous outing, is once again central to everything that is going wrong in this novel. Not content with having caused the ruination of one planet, Keating takes the Selkie’s bio-engineered plague back to earth and infects the terran population. Hansen and Wood, the human/Selkie team (and now couple) arrive on Earth with a view to stopping the plague and aiding those who would have to rebuild. What they find is a hidden but still powerful fanatic religion, a secret enclave of Earth-born Selkies and a second “moddie” race. All of these tumbled together make for a frantic race to determine who will hold and exert power and influence in what has become of Earth.
Willett’s usual moral tale style is in high gear here, with the logical next step of the question he posed in Marseguro, “What makes someone human?” When the Selkies are forced to confront their prejudices not only of “normals”, but also of a race far more modified than their own, questions arise as to where to draw that line. How the different characters answer the question ultimately decides their fate for them.
Although overall I quite enjoyed this read, I had a couple of minor quibbles: first, as I mentioned, I didn’t find the Avatar’s reasoning all that reasonable – I know he’s supposed to be a portrait of fanaticism, but why? Is he supposed to have gone mad from the pressure of a position he did not want, and is just acting as though his conscious mind were not in control? This seems at odds with the characterisation of his position in the previous book, as someone who had it all together and was thinking a couple steps ahead (as when he and Cheveldeyoff planned the ascension). Secondly, I found that Richard spent too much time bemoaning his own bad choices. I suppose if the alternative was for him to enter a catatonia like Dr. Christiansen-Wood, then having him mope through all his choices is preferrable. I understand that his role is to play opposite Keating and Rasmusson, who are so self-prepossessed that they never stop to consider their actions, but there has to be a happy medium between the two. Finally, and this really descends into nitpick territory, a plot point in the last portion of the novel revolves around convincing the Kemonomimi (really hard to read that over and over) that their leader isn’t who he says he is. One of the Marseguorite Selkies states that he met the person in question, when in Marseguro, an old hospitalized non-mod stated that he was the last person alive who’d met the Kemonomimi’s leader. As I said, nitpicky.
As with all of Willett’s science fiction, the science is well handled, from genetically modified humans and bioengineered viruses, to faster-than-light travel and molecular fabrication. His light touch lets us know what the futuristic technology can do without bludgeoning us with technical details. It’s believable enough in the universe that he has crafted.
The moral foundation for the book seems to be that who were are depends on how we react to the poor choices we’ve made – whether we take responsibility for setting them right, divorce ourselves from blame and lay it elsewhere, or detach ourselves from reality and claim that everything that’s happened, good and bad, is predestined and we are all just playing parts. Willett’s heroes are the ones who step up and do the right thing, and those who refuse to do so get their comeuppance in the end.
It’s too bad that the publishers decided not to pick up a third book, because I’d be interested to see where the story could go from this point (if my math is right, there’s one more clone unaccounted-for), but if this is to be the final chapter of the Selkie saga, it neatly ties up the loose ends of the first book, while creating a compelling read in and of itself. While I think readers would have trouble picking it up as a standalone novel, it is a worthy sequel and coda to Marseguro.