Afsan is the seventh apprentice to palace astronomer Tak-Saleed - so far he's last half a kiloday without being fired, a record for apprenti of the notoriously exacting Master, but Afsan's far from complacent. Afsan has struck up a close friendship with Dy-Dybo, son and heir of Her Lumiance Empress Len-Lends, and has been chosen to accompany him as they set out to fulfil two of the rituals of adulthood - the Hunt, and the Pilgrimage. The first is dangerous - Quintaglio have been killed despite being guided by professional hunters. The second is lengthy - a journey of many, many dekadays by boat to meditate on the Face of God.
By a fluke, Afsan manages a spectacular kill on his inaugural hunt, and is duly tattooed above his left ear hole. But it is on the pilgrimage that he manages to make a discovery that will revolutionise the Quintaglio world view - through the use of a new invention, the far-seer, Afsan determines that the Land is not a land mass floating on an endless river, but a moon circling a larger planet (the Face of God). The world is round, and even at great cost to himself, Afsan will not recant this great heresy.
This is the first in the magnificent Quintaglio trilogy that, even on this fourth reading, loses none of its beauty or power. Afsan is Galileo in this first of a series that manages to create and explore a wholly alien world while demonstrating how scientific discoveries can fundamentally change cultures. Even without the cover art, it's obvious that the Quintaglios are not only not human but are not humanoid, with very different cultures and mores.
What sets Sawyer apart from the majority of world builders, not only in FSF but in fiction writing generally, is how deftly and subtley he portrays this. In contrast to the disappointing novels of the last couple of days, Sawyer's writing is engrosing from its opening line, all show, so well crafted that there are no seams. His characters live on the page, his world is amazingly internally coherent, and his world his wholly unique. While I wait for his next novel to appear I am perfectly content to re-read his greatest hits. - Alex