Windhaven is a storm-wracked world consisting of a vast ocean and a small scattering of islands, home to the descendants of survivors of a spacecraft crash centuries earlier. The most efficient way of passing messages between islands is by the flyers, specially-trained men and women who can use strong-but-flexible 'wings' salvaged from the wrecked spaceship to ride the winds from island to island. Tradition has it that a flyer's wings are passed from parent to their eldest child, but this order is upset when Maris of Lesser Amberley, the adopted daughter of a flyer, is required to give up her wings to her adopted father's trueborn eldest child, who has no interest in flying. The establishment is opposed to any opening of the flyers' ranks to the 'land-bound', but the winds of change are blowing on Windhaven, and these changes will be difficult and potentially bloody.
Windhaven, originally published in 1981, is a 'fix-up' novel, consisting of two short stories written in the 1970s and a third, concluding section written for this edition. It was George R.R. Martin's second novel and Lisa Tuttle's first. With the book's feudal society and low technology level (due to a lack of metal on the islands), it is reminiscent of fantasy, although there is an SF background to the setting.
The novel is divided into three episodes, taken from different points in Maris's life. In the first, Maris has to fight tradition in order to hold onto her wings. In the second, Maris has succeeded in allowing the 'land-bound' to train as flyers, but faces problems when a bitter and angry new recruit attempts to earn his wings after rejecting the traditions of the flyer caste. In the third, an older Maris, recovering from a head injury, is drawn into a dispute over the powers of the flyers and the land-bound rulers of the islands.
Each episode builds on the same theme on tradition and transformation. Windhaven is, in essence, a caste-based society with the flyers held to different standards, laws and responsibilities as the land-bound. Maris's arguments for changing this to allow the land-bound commoners to train as flyers works because it solves an existing problem, where people in flyer families who are not good at flying are lost in accidents, and their irreplaceable wings with them. However, it is not a safe or easy answer, as the influx of new blood into the flyer community causes unforseen problems that the society has to deal with. The basic premise of a rigid society being changed by the actions of an individual (usually, as in this case, the protagonist) is commonplace, but Windhaven delights in exploring the consequences of each change and following the ripples and additional complications they cause. The book ends with, hopefully, a new, fairer and more permanent order being established, but even in this case Maris realises that problems will continue to arise, this being the nature of societies and indeed life.
Windhaven benefits from strong characterisation. Maris develops from episode to episode, the scope of her ambition widening as her understanding of the world grows. She starts out as a little girl who only wants to fly, but becomes a leader who must make sometimes unpopular decisions to maintain the rules she herself set in place. More complex still is Val, the 'one-wing' Maris starts out by hating but ultimately has to fight for, despite his own dislike of her. There is also S'Rella, the trainee flyer from the far south, who wants to follow in Maris's footsteps and is upset to find the world a harsher place than she thought, as well as Evan (a doctor in the service of a ruthless and cruel lord) and Coll (Maris's brother, born to be a flyer but wanting to be a singer). It's a small but well-defined cast of characters.
There's a strong sense of place to the islands of Windhaven, particularly successful as we still get a sense of the nature of some far-off places even though Maris never visits them. Song of Ice and Fire fans may also be amused to find some place-names that crop up again in the later series (such as the Iron Islands and the Eyrie). The descriptions of flying are vivid, although the actual act of flying plays a smaller role in the story than a reader might expect (it's function and ramifications being more central to the narrative).
Windhaven (****) is a solid early effort from both authors, though perhaps a tad slight compared to their later works and the book's short length requires a fair amount of convenience in plot developments (namely, the way Maris is at the centre of all three major world-shaking moments in the book). It's well-written, mixing cynicism with hope and adding a dash of realism to the optimism engendered by Maris's successes. It is available now in the UK and USA.
Source: I purchased this book.