Review: Black Bead (Book 1 of the Black Bead Chronicles) by J.D. Lackey
Whenever there is a fuss about the prospect of human gene-engineering, more of the arguments are focused on moral than technical grounds. Ought we to change the genome? How do we deal with any technical failures? Black Bead seems to be about an entirely different question: Can a society into which such planned changes have been introduced recognize the value of an unexpected change?
Six-year-old Cheobahn's black bead labels her as a maladaptation. The tribal society into which she struggles to fit resides in a "home dome" that serves as a nightly fortress against a hostile environment.
Man is not the peak predator in this world, despite the psi powers that have been carefully introduced to the human genome. That's actually a subtly misleading statement; gene-engineering is done by the women of the matriarchal tribes, and they have suceeded in isolating these new powers to the females of the species.
The intriguing theme is well supported by the action of the novel, as Cheobahn and her older "Little Mother" friend Megan join with a trio of boys—Tam, Connor and Alain—to form a hunting group that will let the older four travel unaccompanied outside the home dome and its daytime farms. Their rite of passage to tribal adulthood is impeded by Megan's insisting that her too-young, black-bead friend Cheobahn be included in the hunting pack.
The tribal powers allow it, but because of the poor showing that brought the six-year girl her black bead, they restrict the pack to within two kilometers of the dome, barely past the local farms and gathering areas where pre-adults are allowed. What the tribe's leaders don't realize is that Cheobahn's unrecognized powers have already seduced the four older members to ignore the restriction. The five will end up far beyond the elder-imposed boundaries, in high joy and deep danger, relying on the uncertain abilities of the youngest amongst them to get home before dark.
This is excellent story-telling, thrilling and absorbing, with such a light hand on precursor clues that you scarcely notice the unanswered questions. (How did the boys persuade the Mothers to let them dress in new clothing? Is a real entity supporting Cheobahn, or is that just her visualization of her powers?)
But those questions will keep you awake at night, long after you have finished reading the short (166 pages) novel. They will whet your appetite for the next novel in the series, and the next.