There is at least a small amount of discomfort in accepting that a non-science fiction book won the Hugo award for best novel of 2001. Don't get me wrong, I think Harry Potter is just dandy, and even if he wasn't, anything that gets kids to read is great, but the Hugo? For those who are unfamiliar with the Hugo, it's considered by most to be the top-dog award for a number of science fiction fields. The Harry Potter books are many things, but one thing they are most assuredly not is science fiction. I shrugged and thought it might have been because the 2001 sci-fi field was a bit thin. That was before I read the book that should have won, yet it somehow managed to avoid even being nominated.
Ventus is a world locked into a medieval feudal society. Jordan Mason lives on this world, and we begin by observing his first awkward day as a foreman mason. Jordan has started receiving startling visions, and to make matters worse, his sister, Emmy, who recently became the reluctant recipient of courtship advances from an unsavory noble, flees into the woods, and Jordan takes off after her. In the woods, he meets Lady Calandria May, who offers to help him find his sister.
I know what you're thinking. This sure sounds like fantasy, and I promised you a science fiction book. Never fear, gentle reader. This book is about as fantasy-like as a Vernor Vinge novel. In fact, the parallels between Schroeder and Vinge are many, as you'll see.
The beginning is merely a clever distraction from what is really going on. Ventus is controlled by The Winds, nanotech organisms that are worshipped by the planet's inhabitants as gods. The Winds were originally sent to terraform the planet for colonization. The problem is that these Winds no longer listen to people. They will destroy technology that they do not approve of, and often the people using it. They give no warnings, and no one knows why.
To call the nanotech creatures gods is something that spread farther than this small backwater world, though. Calandria had just returned from a difficult fight with a 'god' creature, that had decided to enslave humanity for its own ends. With the aid of another god, she was able to defeat it, but not before it sent an emmisary to... you guessed it, Ventus. The Winds are really a vast, intelligent, distributed network, and if the emmisary could bend it to its own will. Who knows what power that might bring?
Jordan, and his visions, are the key to this struggle. And Calandria basically kidnaps him to ensure victory. Because of Jordan's unique power the Winds take notice of him, and some of them think Ventus might be better off without him. The story winds up from there and for the entirety of the 600+ pages, the book never slows its quick pace.
The recipe? Easy:
Add a tablespoon of fantasy (or enough to create an anachronistic feel) to two heaping cups of hard sci-fi and one cup of space-opera. Stir in Joseph Campbell's hero archetype, and a bit of speculative fiction about the future of computing. Bake and serve hot. The finished product reads like a cross between Vernor Vinge, Isaac Asimov and Homer. If you enjoy science fiction, you will love this book. You might even agree that it should have taken the Hugo. Go find out.