Grass by Sheri S. Tepper is the best book I have read in a long, long time. It’s sci-fi with heart, and it does what I always crave in my sci-fi and fantasy, it uses fantastical worlds to ask big questions while ringing emotionally true.
The setup to the story is pretty simple: a plague is sweeping through the galaxy, and only the backwards, provincial, planet of Grass is unaffected. A family is sent to infiltrate Grass’s insular ruling nobility to find out if Grass’s immunity to the plague is real, or only legend, but nothing on Grass is as it seems, and though Grass may be safe from the plague, it hides dangerous secrets.
I don’t want to give too much away, tension hums in the story from the very beginning, and unraveling the mystery is part of the books appeal. I did almost stop reading after the first few pages, I wasn’t sure I was going to like any of the main characters–the women were simpering, the men were cruel, both genders were caricatures of human beings and oppressive gender roles. I like exploring such things (you may have noticed) but there always has to be balance, and certainly in all times and places there have been men who respected their wives and who weren’t simpering but were still loved. However, the book shifted away from nobles’ problems to ordinary people and it became clear that the author had more to say. Also, religious people were portrayed with depth.
There’s drama, action, and cool aliens. The prose is amazing, and makes me feel dumb. (Sigh. Maybe some day.)
On Amazon US it is also available as both used and new paperbacks. This is a classic of sci-fi, and it is probably available at your local public library!