Chrysoberyl of Dolomoth is a pyroscape artist with the Seven Stars. In order to improve her financial and artistic positions she agrees to become a carrier. Carriers play host to sentient microbial symbionts, visible to the host via their optic neuroports. Chrys’ ‘people’, the Eleutherians, call her the God of Mercy, but they don’t always act in her best interests. And there are other strains of micros going around, ones that take over their hosts, turning them into vampires and drug addicts. These hosts eventually travel to the Slave World, a place no one ever returns from.
You’re dropped into this complex world with no explanation, so it takes a few chapters to become familiar with all the terms, characters, and ideas. You do learn about the micros and how being a carrier works along with Chrys, but there’s a lot outside of that to take in: Chrys’ art, elves, sentients, simians, the Underworld, vampires, anti-simian groups, etc. The world is multi-layered and realistically complex.
The characters, both humanoid and micro, are quite fascinating. Chris must learn how to deal with the little people in her head and their demands on her time (for themselves and for the larger micro community as a whole) while also continuing with her own life (her art, lost friends, religious family, learning how to handle money, personal relationships).
The book does… meander a bit. While there are several linear plot threads, there are also a fair number of asides into complementary issues. The author examines different problems associated with being a host, and how different hosts treat their people. It also goes into how the hosts treat each other - both in the carrier community and outside of it. Then there’s the inter-racial problems: simians and physician sentients face discrimination, elves believe their society is perfect and so ignore the real threat one of their members poses everyone, should micros have the same rights as carriers, etc.
I really enjoyed the book. It’s fascinating seeing the different groups interact, and the micros are so much fun.