This post has spoilers, but I think I managed to avoid all the major ones.
On the planet of Mariposa, a person's tribe is everything. Tribes protect their members, police them, give them training, and more. In exchange, every tribe member is required to spend a few years in service to their tribe. Each tribe is composed entirely of a single gender. Daughters are always born with a tribe, their mother's. Sons are expected to be given to their fathers and become part of their fathers' tribes. If no one is willing to claim a male child, or if the mother doesn't wish to name the father, then he must be abandoned. Abandoned children become the slaves of whoever finds them first.
Jahnsi Han-Lin has just finished her service for her tribe and is on her way to her father's house when she comes across Hob, a runaway slave. Jahnsi and her family don't approve of slavery, so Jahnsi convinces Hob to come with her so that she can at least get his slave collar off and let him rest a bit before he decides what to do next. Hob understandably freaks out when he learns that Jahnsi's father is a member of the Ortega tribe - it was an Ortega who owned him and rented him out to customers as a sex slave. However, Hob eventually realizes Jahnsi and her family really do want to help him. Figuring out how to give a tribe-less slave a new and better life isn't going to be easy, though. Hob's owner, Andre Ortega, is looking for him.
Meanwhile, LuAnne Mingo, an offworlder, is a finder looking for her client's long-lost nephew - it's not tough to guess who he is. Can she find him before Andre Ortega does?
After finishing The Sixth Discipline, I wanted to try something else by Buxton but didn't feel ready to read the book's sequel, No Safe Haven. I spent some time looking through descriptions, and Tribes sounded like it had one of the biggest things that appealed to me about The Sixth Discipline: an exploration of a fascinating sci-fi/fantasy culture. I was also intrigued by the bit about Jahnsi being from a fighting tribe.
The cultural stuff did turn out to be really interesting. I liked finding out how everything worked, from the planet's justice system, to tribal badges, to the service every tribe member was required to do. While I found the world interesting as a whole, I particularly enjoyed the little details that showed how the tribal system affected the way native Mariposans thought and behaved. For example, Jahnsi thought of LuAnne as “the Mingo” because, to Jahnsi, a person's surname is their tribe. Also, their tribal name automatically tells others what their gender is. It wasn't necessary to specify that someone was female if you said they were a Han-Lin, so the idea that a Mingo could be male or female seemed odd to Jahnsi.
Speaking of Jahnsi, I liked her. As a Han-Lin, she knew how to fight, but she wasn't a dark, gritty warrior heroine. I think that, to her, fighting was often just a job. She was very practical about it. There was always a risk of getting hurt, but she was experienced enough that she had a fairly realistic idea of what her risks were. There was one part where she decided to take on a job involving a dispute over an order of uniforms that weren't the right color. She viewed the job as a good, fairly low-risk way to earn money, because it was only going to involve hand-to-hand combat. Hob, on the other hand, was much more worried about the possibility she might get hurt.
While I wouldn't call this book a sci-fi romance, it did have some romance it in. I thought Jahnsi and Hob's relationship moved at tad fast. Hob had spent his entire life as a slave, and a good chunk of that time as a sex slave. Because the drugs the other slaves were given didn't work on him, he was fully aware of everything he was made to do. Granted, Jahnsi was different – she forced nothing on him. I still thought things went a little more quickly and smoothly between them than they should have. They were a couple after maybe eleven days (or less?). LuAnne and Forest's relationship also started fairly quickly, but it was more believable to me because neither one of them had gone through the lifetime of abuse that Hob had gone through.
I spent much of the book very curious about what would happen once LuAnne found Hob. Would he be willing to go to his aunt? Would he be forced to go if he wasn't? What was going to happen between him and Jahnsi? I absolutely did not expect what did happen, not even with the hints (like Hob's brain implant) that there was a little more to the situation than just an aunt looking for her long-lost nephew. I wasn't really happy with the way things developed. I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but...well, it felt a little Borg-like and creepy. And the romance-loving part of me was disappointed by the ending. I suppose some people might feel that things end on a positive note for Jahnsi and Hob, but I had serious doubts that their relationship was going to last long, since there was already strong evidence that Hob felt the duties of his new life took precedence over his own wishes. I could easily imagine his aunt forcing him into an arranged marriage, and I seriously doubt Jahnsi would be willing to stand by and be his mistress. LuAnne and Forest's relationship was actually more satisfying to me than Jahnsi and Hob's – an unusual feeling for me, since I tend to identify more with younger couples in books than older ones.
Hmm, what else? This is a bit spoiler-y, but I loved that Andre Ortega got what was coming to him. He was horrible. Also, I was not a fan of the number of times (two, I think?) that Hob had his ability to make choices for himself taken away from him by people he should have been able to trust. Especially considering his history as a slave, he didn't hold this against those people for nearly as long as I thought he should have. And, ugh, Jahnsi's reaction after she found out the shocker that was the identity of one of Hob's former customers. Hob didn't deserve that, although at least she realized pretty quickly she was out of line.
All in all, Buxton's turning out to be a good author for me when I need a "interesting sci-fi culture" fix. Her characters sometimes act in ways that make me rage at them, but I still get a decent-to-good read overall.
- Powers That Be (book) by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough - Something about Tribes made me think of this book - there are similar (but more antagonistic) issues involving offworlders trying to deal with natives, plus some paranormal/fantasy elements. Also, I could totally imagine the main character, Yanaba, as a Han-Lin injured while completing her service.
- The Cloud Roads (book) by Martha Wells - This one would be good for those who'd like something else featuring a fascinating world and who prefer their sci-fi/fantasy to include a bit of romance. Moon, the main character of this book, has had a hard life, although in a different way than Hob. I've written about this book.
- Pegasus in Flight (book) by Anne McCaffrey - Okay, so this is kind of cheating because I've already included McCaffrey on this list. But it's my list, so I can do what I want. Anyway, this might be good for those who were particularly intrigued by the telepathy elements of Tribes. I'm pretty sure that, like Tribes, this one also follows around several primary characters who eventually cross paths. I've read this, but it was ages ago. The Rowan is also a good option for those who'd like more sci-fi with telepaths.
- Foreigner (book) by C.J. Cherryh - I haven't read this, nor anything else by Cherryh. I've been browsing reviews of this book, and it sounds like it might work for those looking for sci-fi that is more focused on society/culture than technology. The primary complaints seem to be that it can be repetitive and overly introspective.