cover image Waking Beauty

Waking Beauty

Paul Witcover. HarperPrism, $24 (432pp) ISBN 978-0-06-105249-1

Marketed as fantasy, this rich and ambitious first novel offers a convincing glimpse of an exotic world peopled by sharply defined social classes (each with its own city) called the Hierarchate. In all classes, men govern women; yet women, while dangerously corruptible themselves, must protect their men every night or the scent of the legendary Beauty will lure the men to death in the wilds of Herwood. Rose Rubra, a new bride whose husband succumbs to Beauty on their wedding night, is in punishment removed from her home to be remade into a Cat, one of the official prostitutes of this religious yet decadent society. As in Gene Wolfe's New Sun series, here surprising science-fiction elements are carefully revealed. The religion founded by Saint Ixion Diospyros, the drug metheglin, political and social intrigue, macabre murders, the mysteries of Herwood-all are explored and explained, though without losing their mythic overtones. Sometimes slow, and occasionally marred by awkward point-of-view shifts from Rose to other protagonists, this is a striking first novel, a find for those who want more than the same old fantasy worlds and comfortable adventures. (Feb.)