A few days ago I trudging through The Golden Age by John C. Wright--a book that has been on my to-be-read pile since the day it was released. I'm sure it's a fine work: Wright has taken a huge, Baxter-like leap into the future and the book opens with some characters that are reasonably engaging. But after a day or two of trying to get rolling, I realized I was struggling: the book just wasn't holding my interest. Time for a break.
Two days later I was carrying a different book around with me: reading as I carried laundry up and down the stairs, reading while walking the dog, reading while waiting for the kids to get their shoes. It wouldn't let me go and I just had to keep reading--even though I already knew what was going to happen. After all, I had read this book before. Many times.
The Terrorists of Irustan is probably Louise Marley's best work to date (though I'm pleased to see she has a new one coming out in a few months)--and that's impressive, since she has several other worthy titles to her name. Maquisarde, The Glass Harmonica and the Child Goddess are all definitely worth your time--and her writing is strong enough to let me recommend her Singer books even though they're a little froofy for my tastes. But for my money, the Terrorists of Irustan easily leads the pack.
The colony world of Irustan is a brutal place for women. Here the dominant religion requires men to direct all their energy towards their work, to the explicit exclusion of their health (unless it interferes with their labor) or their families (which they're not allowed to establish until they're retired from the mines). Women and girls are essentially confined to their houses; they have no rights, no opportunities--cannot in fact even speak to men outside their family without a related male there to convey their words. Men are the undisputed rulers of their families, and their crimes against their wives and children are actually not considered crimes at all.
Because men must remain "undiverted" by considerations of the body, men are taught from childhood never to even consider the workings of their bodies: confronted with blood or injuries most men will reflexively shun the wounded. The colony has a small number of medicants to take care of such matters: untrained would-be doctors (women, of course; men can't be bothered with issues of the body) who largely rely on Earth-supplied diagnostic machines to do their jobs for them.
Our protagonist is a medicant--but a skilled, knowledgable one who has studied and become a competent physician in her own right. And throughout the book her professional role forces her to confront the worst inequities in her society, until she finally decides to do something about it.
Marley is at her best when championing the underdog--and that usually means women and children, carefully placed in situations where they're particularly vulnerable and abused. Her emphasis on protect-the-children is particularly pronounced in Maquisarde and The Child Goddess, and it absolutely drives both works. In The Terrorists of Irustan, it's both groups--and Marley plays the theme convincingly.
I've read this book half a dozen times, and even knowing how it ends I find myself watery-eyed at the end of every reading. The only problem I have with the book is that it's too short--and there's no sequel.