How to sum up The Pattern Scars by Caitlin Sweet, nominated for the Aurora and the Sunburst, and already winner of the CBC Bookie Award for Science Fiction, Fantasy or Speculative Fiction, taking the popular vote by an overwhelming margin? Here’s one attempt: It’s the story of Nola, a young woman gifted with Othersight — the ability to see into the future — but at its heart it’s a story about power.
Othersight is a kind of power, of course. For those who have it, it not only means the ability to look into another’s Pattern and see their Path, but it also changes the path their lives would otherwise have followed. The novel opens with the legend of Teldaru, whose gift rescued him from a life of poverty as a young boy, bringing him to the castle where he would grow up to be the king’s chief Otherseer and trusted adviser. Nola’s journey is neither so swift nor direct: When she first demonstrates the Othersight, her mother promptly sells her to the local brothel, where Otherseeing is but one of the services they offer.
The connection between seers and brothels is one hint that Otherseeing is not as glamorous as one might at first imagine (and that in this story, sex is about power as well, more often than it is about love or romance). We learn, along with Nola, the rituals and boundaries that surround the practice of Othersight — that an Otherseer cannot look into another’s Pattern without that person speaking the words of invitation, and that seers should not submit themselves to the Othersight. But these rules are soon broken, as Nola discovers that there is something more powerful than the words of invitation, and more dangerous as well: blood.
As might be expected in a book called The Pattern Scars, there is a lot of blood, in visions of the Otherworld but also flowing in the real, physical world, beginning with Nola’s first vision that reveals her ability. And for Nola, the onset of menstruation is not just a rite of passage, but a change that opens up a whole new level of potential and exposes her to the darker side of her gift. Under the tutelage of her second mentor, an enigmatic seer from the castle, Nola delves into the forbidden arts of Bloodseeing that allow a seer not only to see another’s Paths, but to alter them too.
But although Bloodseeing enables truly monstrous acts, giving a seer the power of life and death over others, there is plenty of danger in the simple act of prediction. When still young and inexperienced, Nola agrees to Othersee for one of the girls at the brothel, but sharing her vision leads to the girl’s death. And later, as her new mentor becomes her captor, twisting her gifts to serve his own terrible ambitions, we realize that it was another prophesy from long ago that planted the seeds of his sinister plan. There is a debate introduced early on about whether the Pattern is fixed, or if a seer’s visions merely show one possible version of the future. Nola’s first teacher, at the brothel, believes the latter, but the prevailing belief in the kingdom is that the Pattern is set. This unshakable faith in a particular vision of the future is partly to blame for much of the suffering that follows.
Finally, the spine of the story consists of the power dynamics in the relationship between Nola and her obsessive mentor, who claims to love her even as he curses her and strips her of her own free will. The mechanics of the curse aside, it’s not just the way he has manipulated her Paths that keeps her by his side. It’s his promise that he will remove the curse if only she goes along with his agenda, and his threat that he’s the only one who can restore her. Meanwhile his physical beauty, worldly influence and mercurial passions combine to cast a spell as powerful as any act of Otherseeing. After her initial attempts to resist, Nola confesses, she gets used to her situation, “because you can accustom yourself to anything, if you feel you have no choice.”
It is difficult to make readers feel for a character who has no choice, who is trapped in a predicament from which she cannot escape. Sweet walks this tightrope by parcelling out tiny slivers of hope, in a framing story that shows us glimpses of Nola years after the events that she narrates — perhaps the only description of a future that we can truly trust — in which her oppressor is notably absent. The promise of justice to come keeps us going, but in the end there is no real triumph. Nola does not come out the other side of her harrowing journey stronger, more confident and finally free — but what does happen feels more authentic for eschewing a more uplifting resolution. The Pattern Scars is a courageous piece of storytelling that does not flinch from the fact that Nola can never leave her experience behind, and that although she manages to reclaim part of herself, it is never possible for her to be truly whole again.
Voting for the Prix Aurora is underway from now until July 23. See our previous reviews of this year’s nominees: Technicolor Ultra Mall by Ryan Oakley, Napier’s Bones by Derryl Murphy, Eutopia by David Nickle and Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer. A voter package featuring many of the nominees is also available.