Given how the Baen brand has evolved over the years,"Baen Books" does not make one think "Lamba and Tiptree-nominated author" but in the 1980s Jim Baen reportedly made a point of looking for good new female authors and his enhusiasm for gay-bashing SF  had not yet blinded him to works of quality featuring protagonists outside the usual hetrosexual limits. Post-Del Montefication, it may be hard to believe this ever came from Baen but it did.
And the cover wasn't even that bad.
Sadly, the font size is just at the limit I can read and the cost was paid in migraines so this took longer to read than I planned for.
Melissa Scott is a Campbell Award winner whose books I probably have not read enough of. I apparently didn't finish this one on the first go because I found money tucked in amongst the pages, although I must have liked what I did read because I didn't then sell it. I am also breaking one of my rules because Jo Walton reviewed this in front of a lot more eyeballs then this will attract but when she did there wasn't an ebook available.
Fourteen centuries before the book opens an interstellar voyage went horribly wrong, marooning the survivors on Orestes and Electra, two inhospitable but technically habitable moons of the gas giant Agamemnon. The colonists prevailed but one of the consequences of the mishap is a harsh and demanding social order, as well as a rich tradition of brutal internecine warfare.
Rather like a certain other series first published by Baen around this time, the moons have come in contact with a galactic community, the Urban Worlds, in comparison to whom the moons seem backward and cruel (not that that stops the Urban Worlders from taking advantage the chance to sell the local advanced weapons). Trade with the Urban Worlds are forcing disruptive economic changes on the moons.
The locals are not quite as doctrinaire as they used to be; transgressions used to punished with death but now some are punished by declaring the reprobates legally dead, consigning them to an existence not unlike the one lived by the protagonist of Silverberg's "To See the Invisible Man", present but willfully ignored, beyond the ken of polite society and consigned to a ghetto whose main protection is that to destroy it would require acknowledging its inhabitants. Trey Maturin, born in the Urban worlds, works as "medium", an intermediary between the living and dead.
Although for the first third of the book it looks as though a Romeo and Julietesque romance has doomed the rival Kinship Brandr and Halex to a grim future of peace and prosperity, a terrible mishap provides the opportunity for mutual recriminations that very quickly spiral into open warfare between Brandr and Halex. Both sides see the need to import expensive and extremely destructive weapons; unfortunately for Halex, Brandr's arrive first.
Although Brandr seems to have an unassailable advantage, the handful of surviving Halex still have cards to play; legal shenanigans and bold contravention of custom turn out to be games both sides can play.
[What is it about SF and court cases, anyway?]
Trey's gender is kept carefully ambiguous, which must have made recording the audiobook that was announced a few years back interesting. What bits they happen to be in possession of isn't seen as a character defining element by the people of this time and Scott refuses to give in modern expectations.
Fans of military SF might find this a bit frustrating because most of the carnage happens off-stage and not just because a lot of it is of the sort that doesn't leave eye-witnesses. Violence shapes the choices available but murder and egregious crimes against humanity are not the details the author wants to illuminate.
This is a much better book than it needs to be. The plot itself is pretty basic, a familiar story of ambitious aristocrats leading their clans into a bloody conflict whose main accomplishment is to further undermine a society already crumbling (Given the nature of this society, that would not be such a bad thing if the process didn't involve so much violent death). The plot almost seems an excuse to present the world building, the odd to ours eyes cultures of the two moons and the hints we get about the galaxy beyond.
The Kindly Ones can be purchased here
1: I can and will supply quotations if provoked.
Also posted at Dreamwidth, where there are comment(s); comment here or there.
- The Kindly Ones by Melissa Scott