Li-Fang has a way with nature. So she is sent against her will to train as an Agri-Seer, though she dreams one day of joining the Rider Corps like her sister Lixi. Partnered with an arrogant Rider, Daniel Kelso, Lifang must forget the wild Hunter Quetz she met by a hidden waterfall near her home, and accept who she is.
Until, that is, a wild Quetz is captured. Lifang discovers she can communicate with a creature, a skill no Rider has ever demonstrated, and must now confront her destiny all over again. Will going against convention be worth the cost?
Chng’s novel is the first in a series, and whilst Rider does have more to it than the blurb above, it honestly doesn’t have that much more; it’s a slim volume with a serious inclusivity policy that is on the whole carried out well, but sadly, that doesn’t make for a perfect novel…
The novel’s strongest point, I think, is its inclusivity. Chng uses shared eating practices and throw-away mentions of food, alongside a variety of naming traditions, to demonstrate that she has written a world that at the same time features Singaporean, Indian and Western cultural traditions and ethnicities; and Rider stars an apparently-asexual, disabled woman as its protagonist, while having homosexuality firmly situated in the world by a number of mentions. It even avoids the Pern problem, dealt with so brutally by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, by simply saying breeding Quetzs have no reflection on their companions. So we have a planet colonised by people from across the world who have, to varying degrees, retained their cultures (one character remarks “I don’t [care about my roots]. My family started afresh on Jin. We are Jinians.”), and a variety of sexual identities, although so far only the gender binary has appeared.
That’s, perhaps, where Rider ends its praise. The fact is, the blurb sums up over half the novel, and the other half is predictable from the word go. Chng’s plot is almost as simplistic as it gets; Lifang gets sent off in one direction, part of her past giving the opportunity to go in the other returns, tragedy occurs but she still gets to try the other out, and… actually that’s pretty much where the book stops and starts setting up its sequel, Speaker. We see two sets of training – one as Agri-Seer, basically a botanist-cum-terraformer, and the other as a Rider, working with the Hunter Quetz (flying beasts that are telepathic and bond with humans, not unlike McCaffrey’s Pern). We therefore learn an awful lot about the world of Rider, but very little actual plot takes place; even for a novel that’s barely 150 pages, this book drags a surprising amount.
The writing style is breezy and the use of the first person, a standard YA trick, effective in conveying this as a sort of coming-of-age account, but Rider, even here, never seems to go anywhere; apart from Lifang, all the characters are incredibly shallow, especially Daniel Kelso, who is portrayed as stereotypically as you can imagine a teenage boy being portrayed. Lifang herself doesn’t have a terribly consistent character, as if Chng wasn’t quite sure whether the confident, angry Lifang or the self-doubting homesick one was the star of Rider; worse, she undergoes no character development throughout the novel, instead remaining stuck in the same kind of mode at the end as the beginning.
In the end, I perhaps went into Rider with my expectations set too high, but it’s especially disappointing to have to damn a book that is, indeed, so inclusive.