In 1977, an intellectual female author wrote a debut, fantasy/sci-fi novel featuring a heroine in a dystopic, alien world striving to discover her mysterious past & god-like ancestry; in 2015, her debut novel was reprinted. Some may assume I am referring to Tanith Lee who passed away recently; her 1975 debut The Birthgrave was reprinted in 1977 and this year which I just read/enjoyed/reviewed. However, I am referring to Janet Morris’s 1977 High Couch of Silistra; this reviews her ‘author’s cut’ version, coincidentally released this year. Janet Morris’s style is quite different that Lee’s, though fans of the Birthgrave would certainly devour High Couch.
Intense Sex: One would wrongly assume that High Couch of Silistra is a 1970-feminist-movement book; the role of sex, rape, and fertility is posited to make the reader tense. The protagonist Estri is a woman of Silistran origin (alien with human form) and most Silistran’s are reliant on humans to become impregnated, which is a rare event. The culture and expectations of purchased sex, often brutal but sometimes passionate, are constantly present. Somehow, Janet Morris manages to write all this erotic-infused adventure in an intellectual, almost dispassionate voice. This is not shallow romance/soft-pornography. Nor is High Couch of Silistragratuitous whoring. This is mature-rated, engaging fantasy.
Tension: Without spoiling, note that characters watch their parents have intercourse, men rape other men, and woman lust after men who abuse them. In real life, these situations would appall me. My test for rationalizing my comfort level and reading onward was: if Estri tolerated her predicaments, then so should I. The constant tension between the book’s acceptable behavior and today’s societal norms took me beyond reading the story. It made reading this more than adventure. It made me think. Janet Morris’s intent was to play with controversial sexual and societal themes; she delivered with Estri’s journey, full of codependent genders & races, an intricate alien world, and psychedelic magic.
Cover Art & Interview: In Janet Morris’s 2014 interview on Beauty in Weird Fiction she said that “Human extravagances and limitations are what, for me, Silistra is about, but it is not a series for the erotically-averse, or the intellectually timid.” As a reader/reviewer, I could not agree more with that self-assessment. In that interview she also noted her dislike of the 1977 cover art Boris Vallejo that depicted Estri with a brass bra and Gucci boots. For the author’s cut, she employed artist Roy Mauritsen who presented a more intellectual design for the Silsitra quartet by dividing the Dancing Maenad in (a Roman relief) over the four books (photo by Ana Belén Cantero Paz).
Genre & Theme: This futuristic, dystopian world has science-fiction elements (space/time travel, some technology), but leans toward fantasy (alien beasts with hybrid/mythological designs; sorcery like telepathy/mind reading; fighting that is melee/blade-focused). Ubiquitous themes of procreation, fertility, and “shaping” the world add depth.
The Silstra Quartet seriesThe series continues, the remaining three presumably to be released in the near future (since the covers are designed.)