“Derkra had only ubiquitous light with no apparent source and floating shadows that chose their places to cling at random.”
Daughters of Tith is an exceptional achievement in fantasy and one of the best books (if not the best book) I’ve read all year. I’m both flabbergasted and unsurprised that it hasn’t yet received the attention it should have. At turns LeGuinian, with stunning prose that knows when to keep something back to let the story and characters take centre-stage, Tith is a book that doesn’t handhold, but which rewards readers looking for speculative fiction that genuinely speculates. Anyone disappointed that the popular SFF landscape floundered in the wake of Jemisin’s brilliant Broken Earth trilogy should take note of Daughters of Tith. This is where I, for one, had hoped fantasy was going.
The reason why I’m both shocked and unsurprised that Tith hasn’t yet (big emphasis on yet) made it big is that both its length and the detailed worldbuilding in its opening are likely to be daunting
to some readers. This is not because Anderson infodumps, but almost the opposite. Tith doesn’t handhold the reader, and there are a lot of concepts and related terms (including place and character names) that can be challenging at first to separate. I encourage anyone worried they don’t have the head for it to continue–it does all become very natural after the first few chapters and I found that just flowing along (which the strong prose makes easy to do) allowed me to enjoy the story without stressing over whether I’d yet figured out the differences between specific words, places, and concepts. After those initial chapters, Tith truly became unputdownable.
I’ve reflected a lot on why the worldbuilding comes off, at first, as difficult when compared with countless fantasies that include just as many new terms and names, and have come to the conclusion that it’s part and parcel with Tith‘s uniqueness. It’s rare that a fantasy genuinely tries to capture the alienness of a different species, and even more rare for it to succeed. While elves, dwarves, and orcs may all be embued in heroic and high fantasy with a sense of magesty (usually one that’s overtly stated rather than embodied) or Otherness in some essentialized way, Anderson’s kandar genuinely think and feel differently than we do. By that I don’t mean they’re a shallow allegory for communism or [insert X philosophy here], but that the very processes of thinking and feeling are different and this nuance is carefully rendered on the page. One of the great pulls of the novel is the unfolding of character through the protagonists’ exploration of what it means to be kandar–an unfolding that’s very different to, but in tension with, the question of what it means to be human.
In terms of plot, Tith follows several kandar POVs, the main one of whom is a woman (tevadra) called Tchardin. Tchardin is one of the titular daughters of Tith (there are five in all), with Tith himself being a great tree on a small island in a nearly limitless ocean. The kandar on the island are the last of their kind following a devastating war in their long-distant past. There is a mysterious other territory, “Land Side,” but the kandar lack access to it. More worrying, even, than their depleted numbers, is the fact that the kandar have been severed from the nine human realms of which they were appointed guardians. Their Purpose as a species has always been to shepherd the Earths–the kandar at once occupy roles similar to angels or spirits–and Tchardin is determined to help her people regain it. When Tchardin and her sister Damarin set off for Land Side in what many of their fellow kandar believe is a suicide mission, the daughters of Tith are hurled into an adventure that reunites them with the humans they were once intended to serve and which creates a schism among the kandar that threatens a second–and perhaps even more destructive–civil war.
There’s a grand, mythological quality to the narrative, and in many ways Tith is a cosmogony (or several cosmogonies, or a post-post cosmogony). I was reminded while reading of Paradise Lost, His Dark Materials, and numerous creation myths from around the world, yet the book itself is absolutely singular. There are just enough shades of human fairytales, mythologies, and religions in the actuality of the kandar to make them believeable as creatures that exist proximate to, but outside of, human understanding and geography. Their particular connection with trees (kandar each have one father–a tree–and are born from him only to return when their time is up so they can eventually be reincarnated), means Tith has much to say about the relationship between self and environment. Throughout the novel there’s also a powerful thematic focus on interpersonal and interspecies relationships–what do we owe one another? What do we owe to other species and to those of us yet to be born? What do we owe to the lands we occupy? Each of these questions resonates for the kandar just as much as they do for the human characters Tchardin interacts with. Indeed, the answers to these questions have devastating consequences for all of Tith‘s characters when those with power decide to answer them differently.
Although Tith has quite a lot to ask (it rarely attempts concrete anwers, which is to its credit), it’s also a very exciting book that contains a surprising amount of action. The climax of the novel is particularly noteworthy in this regard, with scenes that easily put one in mind of a Hollywood blockbuster. Unlike most Hollywood blockbusters, however, these scenes have real stakes, and the character work that’s been put in over the course of the story means the reader has a genuine emotional investment in the outcomes. Baked into the themes at play throughout is a strong focus on interpersonal relationships and in particular sisterhood and community ties. Despite that the kandar are so different from humans, there are points of contact, and one of these is in how sibling love and rivalry can manifest and have unintended consequences.
An absolutely phenomenal debut novel and one I’ll undoubtedly be rereading in future. I recommend Daughters of Tith to anyone looking for something fresh from fantasy and which isn’t afraid to take risks. Don’t let its size deter you–this was ultimately a lavish but fast read and one that’s worth returning to.