The Winds of Gath, Book 1 of The Dumarest Saga
***** Excellent, a Must-Read
In the far future, humanity can travel between the stars. But very few of them do. There are some whose trade takes them from world to world, and the very rich travel for pleasure. But most people never leave the world on which they were born. Most cannot afford space travel. Then there is the tedium of the journey itself--it may be weeks between ports, trapped in a small metal ship little better than a prison. The very wealthy can afford to avoid the tedium by traveling under the influence of a drug which makes days pass as hours.
Then there are the travelers. Without wealth or apparent reason, they venture between the stars. A wanderlust may drive them, a troubled past, or a desired future. They make their way from world to world as best they can, working to get the money they need as they go. Sometimes the best they can afford is to travel as livestock, in a dangerous state of life suspension.
The traveller's greatest fear is the dead-end planet. Their way of travel often means that they cannot choose their destination. Their next landfall may be a world where they cannot work, keep their pay, or are otherwise unable to go on to another world.
Gath, a Dead End World
Gath is a world with few opportunities for travelers. Its one attraction is seasonal winds that produce strange sounds, sounds which affect each listener differently. The wealthy travel to Gath each year to hear those winds, to experience their sound. For travelers, Gath is a dead end unless they can earn enough as porters and guides to wealthy tourists to pay their way off-world.
Earl Dumarest is a traveler, seeking his lost home world of Earth. His last voyage was supposed to take him elsewhere, but he's ended up on Gath. He has only a short while before his funds run short, leaving him as one of the starving travelers in the slums of Gath, a world with no welfare or other care for the poor.
Among the tourists awaiting the seasonal start of the winds are an elderly ruler of a world and her young protege. Those around them sense that in the coming transfer of power there lies opportunity. There are several factions, each with something to gain if things should go one way or another, as well as opportunistic outsiders. Earl is drawn into the maelstrom, where he must not only fight to find a way off the planet, but a way to survive.
The Winds of Gath is an excellent read, packing the power and breadth of a novel four times as long. It represents one of the finest examples of the short SF novel. The writing is deft, providing just enough description, leaving the reader free to use their imagination. The characters and situations are described without spoon-feeding the reader.
The overarching plots of the Dumarest series are introduced, but only lightly touched on. The story stands on its own. The blend of action, character, romance, and world-building is superb.
I consider The Winds of Gath to be among the classics of science fiction. It is too little known to the general SF reader. It stands with the best of Heinlein, Vance, and Niven.