Synopsis: Ammonite follows anthropologist Marghe Taishan as representative of a government agency to planet Jeep. The planet has been colonized centuries ago, but contact was lost, but should be recolonized now. A military expedition has been sent there, but soon, all of the men and many women died of an unknown virus.
Currently, the planet is under quarantine. The expedition made contact to the former colonists, now native to the planet. They all are female but can reproduce somehow.
Marge is sent to the planet primarily to test a promising vaccine for the virus, but also to study the natives. Her studies must be concluded within half a year, that's how long the provided dosis will last. Just arriving, she sets out to a freezing northern wastes of the planet.
A second narrative thread interrupts the main thread from time to time. The expedition fears to be extinguished by a hidden battleship above the planet, because the government fears a pandemy. Espionage, paranoia, and the struggle to bond to the natives bring a lot of tension to their commander Danner.
The Echraidhe, an aggressive nomadic tribe, capture and enslave Marghe. Among them is Uaithne who believes of herself the prophet of the apocalypse. Marge learns to survive the harsh environment, sharing the fate of the malnourished and inbred tribe. She decides to flee if possible in the middle of winter, surrounded by a large desert. On her way through Blizzard, loosing several fingers to the frost, nearly dying from hunger, a farmer from Ollfoss rescues her from certain death.
She recovers in the hippy commune of subsistence farmers which is a complete contrast to the nomadic tribe: Hot tubs, village gardens, and a hut with a gong echoing Jeep's electromagnetic pulse. Marghe discovers the nature of the natives' mysticism, their rituals of "deepsearch", their rich storytelling tradition, and how they reproduce without men.
Before that, she has to change.
Review: This is Nicola Griffith's first novel, and has been highly praised and well received as soon as it's been published. It won the Lambda Literary Award, which is for LGBT+ topics in speculative fiction, and the successor of the James Tiptree Jr. award, which cares for gender in speculative fiction.
Now, don't fear, this is not a combative feministic novel, I never felt overwhelmed by all the female characters filling each and every role. It's true that the novel investigates how a culture without men would work. It doesn't care a bit about non-binary or transgender but just presents that highly interesting native culture with its own structural power systems. I can't even say if the native females should be regarded as lesbians at all, because they have forgotten about men, and gender isn't really a topic.
There is a lot of Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness vibe in this novel, up to the point where I sometimes couldn't distinguish the literary style from the famous predecessor. I can't possibly make a higher compliment for this narration, and Le Guin herself ennobled it by calling the novel "a knockout". It features the same tranquility spiked with high peaks of action, alternated with philosophical and anthropological reflections. One of them rattles Marghe deeply:
"These places you go, the people you find, do you come to care for them? Or do you only study them like strange shells you might find on the beach?"
This conversation brings a pivotal point for Marghe's character. She has survived so much, given up all her technological advances to be with the natives. Now, she really changes, goes wild and native. This is the core of the novel, reflected by its genius title Ammonite, an empty shell which Marghe once possessed and defined her, as opposed to all the living people around her who she studied.
The novel works at all loves: starting from the interesting plot full of tension, tying up enough threads in the end to count as a closed narration. The many distinctive characters, not only main protagonist Marghe, but also the expedition's commandant Danner, the native tribe women and Marghe's wise lover in the hippy commune. Add to that all the fascinating aspects of the natives' culture, including their way of defining trades without money called "trata", their mystical traditions, and their common sense leaderships.
If you are a fan of Ursula Le Guin's SF novels, you will love this anthropological work. Everyone else will love the emotionally rich and engaging storytelling. It is truly a SF Masterwork, as published in Gollancz's series.
Nicola Griffith is currently working on the second novel of Hild which should appear latest next year, I can't wait for it.