Patternmaster forms part of a series of books, of which it was the first to be published. Later on, the books were renumbered and the suggested reading order changed to match the chronological order of the stories, in which case this book would be read last. However, judging by many reviews this looks to have been a mistake; people complain that the chronological first in the series, Wild Seed, is by far the best and that Patternmaster makes for an anticlimactic end to the storyline. These reviewers reckoned that publication order was the best one to read the series in, and clearly so far I have to agree – going in with few expectations, I really enjoyed Patternmaster.
The novel takes place on a world at war – the Patternists, humans who are all connected to one another through a psychic network called the Pattern, are fighting the Clayarks, a sphinx-like species who fight with guns and can transmit the dreaded Clayark Disease. There are also non-psychic humans, who are treated by most Patternists as little better than livestock (clearly evoking institutional slavery). The Patternists’ society, despite existing in our distant future, has reverted to a feudal structure with an all-powerful king-like figure (the Patternmaster), with powerful feudal lords (Housemasters) owning vast swathes of territory and many of the people on them. All of this is introduced clearly without great swathes of exposition, and the characters’ use of the Pattern is written to feel natural.
The story’s protagonist is Teray, who at the beginning is embarking on an apprenticeship with Housemaster Joachim and marriage with Iray. However, before he can really make a start with either, he is (illegally) sold into the custody of a more powerful Housemaster, Coransee. It turns out that Teray and Coransee are brothers, and both sons of Patternmaster Rayal, and Coransee wants to ensure that Teray won’t challenge him for the the crown. Teray has no intention of doing so, but cannot stomach the deal Coransee offers him to guarantee it, so the two are drawn into an inescapable conflict.
This book is incredibly strong on characterisation. Everyone is flawed, but nearly all are sympathetic, and the one who isn’t makes for an interesting villain. Although I’d thought the beginning of the book was a little dry, I quickly became entranced by all the inner conflicts of the major characters and just had to keep reading to find out what they would do. There are also some interesting moral dilemmas posed: whether Teray was right to turn down Coransee’s deal, for example. We also get a strong hint – when Teray talks to one in the first half of the book – that the Clayarks are higher-order beings than the Patternists make out, but this doesn’t stop massacres occurring later on. This is a short, fast-paced book (at least once it gets going), but my investment in the characters built up as if over a much longer book. It’s also no surprise to me that, having finished this book, Butler did feel the need to write prequels to it – there’s so much to this setting that I’ve yet to see explored.
The book reminds me a little of The Left Hand of Darkness, but it is much faster-paced (“fixing” the only reservation I really had about that book, which is also brilliant). Both are character-centric explorations of far-future human societies with traits from our history (feudalism) as well as pointed differences (ambisexuality in The Left Hand of Darkness, the Pattern here). Just as I would unhesitatingly recommend that, I would just as much recommend this… and how exciting that the series reportedly gets even better!