I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5: definitely worth reading at least once. [my rating system](1 star: worse than staring at a blank wall, possibly actively damaging to read. 2 stars: a waste of time, okay if you have lots of time to spare. 3 stars: worth reading at least once; you could borrow it from the library and be okay giving it back. 4 stars: worth reading at least twice; you should buy it if you can because you won't want to give it back. 5 stars: worth reading over and over because there is always something new to ponder or realize.)
"Shadow's End" inhabits a subset of sci-fi I'd sum up as "future humans interacting with alien species on non-earth planets." Three women from different cultures/classes are unwillingly pulled into a quest to learn how to stop an unexplained extermination of humans. It includes themes of: ecological responsibility; justice (especially sex-related); definitions of sentience, intelligence, and personhood; what it means to be noticed/visible; definition of deity; habits and uses of religion.
I was fascinated by the culture of Dinadh (the world where most of the story takes place) as it was slowly revealed and by the various unique creatures. I love the commentary on religion especially in its use of beauty and mortality as motivation, and the sense of connection between the narrator and the main character. I was left wanting to know more, while feeling satisfied with what I read.
Content note: TW for a ritualistic rape while restrained: it is not described directly but it is clear that it happens. Also possibly triggering is the method of indentured servitude, which is controlled through technology that does not allow resistance.
Characters: The characters are all cis, nearly all white, nearly all non-disabled, nearly all straight, nearly all upper-class. The main characters consist of: a brown highly-educated woman, two empath-race men, a king, an assassin who exemplifies patriarchy, an under-class woman in tech-enforced indentured servitude, an uneducated lesbian agrarian woman, a fat woman whose fat is constantly referred to in extravagant language, and a child who is considered 'non-human' because they do not speak, have sensory issues, and do not abide by societal norms. Out of the non-defaults, I think that the writing shows understanding of the under-class woman and the lesbian, but I am not so sure about the fat woman and cognitively disabled child. The fat woman is shown as a multifaceted person with skills that are valued, which I appreciate, but none of the other characters have traits which are referred to so constantly, so it feels objectifying. Still better than all the characters being the same shape. The cognitively disabled child is alternately presented as a burden that is undeserving of life or as a magical symbol, both of which are ableist tropes. I'm not sure how to take the wrap-up of the child's story, but most of the book does not treat the child respectfully.
I also felt queer-baited by [possible spoilers this paragraph]
< -- possible spoilers -- > the way that the main character spoke about two others. I thought they were implying an eventual poly lesbian triad, which did not happen. Also, the lesbian character did not get much time with their partner, so while it was great that they weren't all straight, most of the love and relationship in this book was straight. < -- end spoilers -- >
Imagination: As usual Tepper is vividly imaginative in creating creatures and cultures. Unfortunately to describe them is to spoiler you, as they are slowly revealed and explained. The use of taste as a sense is used in this book in a way I have never experienced and quite appreciated. The combined horror and mystery of "the beautiful people" is fascinating, more so as you come to understand them better. The main cultures, Dinadh and Firster, were easy to understand in the context of their history while still being unique. The main characters both critique and defend their cultures, sometimes within the same person. The poverty of the mostly-barren planet was shown in cultural habits and a seemingly simple agrarian society was revealed to have quite a number of layers.
Pacing / plot: As per usual Tepper builds steadily in suspense: the first 3rd sets the stage, the second third gives you little pieces of a lot of different aspects, and the final third begins the reveal, building in intensity at an astonishing rate. I find it very hard to put down a Tepper novel once I'm in the last third, and this is no exception! The plot is simple yet complex: a threat of extinction with a mystery to understand in order to escape the threat.
Setting: This takes place on multiple planets in the distant future. The world of Dinadh was very visual for me as a land of canyons and dry plateaus, as was Perdur Alas, a world of rock cliffs and ocean and grass. The harshness of growth in the one was contrasted by the fecundity of the other.
Point of view: The viewpoint is mostly that of an alien human, but is also told by following two earth-origin humans, one upper-class and one under-class. All three of these are female. The voice switches between 3rd and 1st person. Use of this variation allows for deeper examination of each main character's personality, history, and culture.
Dialogue: There's significantly more description than dialogue. The dialogue passes the bechdel test easily, and tone is varied from person to person. I would say that the variety in speech patterns is about average: neither notably too-similar nor notably unique.
Writing style: Imagery is rich, and it is easy for me to picture the objects and places described. The mood is tense and often bleak, but not to the point of being enough to want to stop reading.
Length, cover: 454 pages in mass-market paperback. The cover pictures Lutha as white, when she is described as brown; this suggests that the target audience is white and won't relate to a brown main character. The summary refers to the quest as Lutha's (when in reality it is shared among several people), but references a more minor male character as a 'famed adventurer'; this suggests that the target audience is willing to read about women, but wants a male hero anyway.
Author: Sheri S. Tepper, 86-year-old white (seemingly non-disabled, straight, cis,) woman who started writing novels at age 53 (and was 66 at the time of this novel). Self-labels as a feminist who cares about ecological and racial justice. Was a single mother of two with little formal education, worked for Planned Parenthood for 24 years. From the midwestern US.
Context of this reviewer: White, afab, genderfree, trans, queer, non-disabled, poly, add-pi neurodivergent, poor, intersectional feminist, age 32, from southern US.