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|The Child Goddess|
by Louise Marley
Published by Ace Books, 2004
Highly Recommended by: Greg Slade
I have a confession to make. Many people think of writing book reviews as a great way to score free books. And, the fact of the matter is that my library is considerably larger than it would have been otherwise, thanks to the authors and publishers who have sent me review copies. However, the whole process makes me nervous. It's one thing when I pick up a book at the bookstore or the library, and then write a negative review. It's something else entirely slamming a book which some author or publisher has shipped to me at their expense. It seems ungrateful to say something nasty about the work of somebody who has, essentially, given me a gift. I'm more confident when the book comes from an author whose previous work I have read and enjoyed, or if it comes from a publisher which I regard as a quality house, but when an author or publicist writes to me out of the blue and offers me a book to review, I get nervous. What if I don't like it? It can take me weeks to write a review of a book I don't like, because I try to find something positive to say, to take a bit of the sting out of the criticism.
All of this is something in the nature of an apology to Louise Marley for being somewhat less than enthusiastic in taking up her offer of a review copy of The Child Goddess. I was nervous, you see. I hadn't read her stuff before, and she didn't mention that it was published by Ace, who published H. Beam Piper's works, including The Complete Fuzzy. and Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. (That fact alone would have given her extra points in my confidence scale.)
The story start on Earth, some 500 years in the future. Isabel Burke is a Roman Catholic priest in the Priestly Order of Mary Magdalene, which is struggling to gain acceptance in the face of centuries of tradition. She also have personal issues for which she needs to do penance. She also happens to be a medical anthropologist, so when a medical and cultural puzzle appears on an inbound spaceship, in the form of a human child found on a planet believed to be uninhabited, her skills and her needs, along with the needs of the Mother House, get her assigned to the case. I don't want to tell you any more of the plot, because Marley takes some care to unravel various truths, both to the characters and to the reader, bit by bit through the course of the story, and I don't want to spoil any of the pleasure of discovery for you.
What I can tell you is that this is a character-driven work, of the sort which has spoiled me for the kind of page turner which logically collapses half an hour after you put it down. It is also very much an exploration of theme, and, unfortunately, if I tell you the themes, I'll give away the plot. I can say this, though: traditionally, I complain about scientific and technical goofs in the stories I review. It is true that there are about half a dozen technical choices which Marley makes which are odd to say the least, and in some cases extremely improbable. For instance, the reason that people encountered the child I mentioned in the first place is that ExtraSolar Corporation is building a facility an a world largely covered by oceans to extract and liquefy hydrogen to use for fuel. Except that it makes no sense to site massive solar arrays on a planet, where they're inoperative half the time, nor to liquify hydrogen at the bottom of a gravity well, instead of scooping it off a gas giant. However, it's necessary to the story for ESC to be building this "hydrogen park" on a human habitable planet, in order for the workers to encounter the girl, and for the characters to deal with the themes covered in the book.
That is not to say that I have no quibbles whatsoever. I was disappointed by the way Burke deals with the emotional climax of the book. After the death of one character, she tells another character that the first character's soul would always be with them "as long as we remember." I would expect a priest, of all people, to be a bit more definite when it comes to what happens after death. (Then again, I have very little tolerance for the comforting untruths which people tell one another about death.)
Overall, I found this a very powerful read, and look forward to discovering the rest of Marley's works. (December, 2004)
Jesus saith unto her, "Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?" (John 20:15)
Mother Isabel Burke is a Magdalene Enquirer, several centuries hence. Just as their patron saint sought after the risen Christ, the Order of Mary Magdalene is dedicated to seeking out hidden truths and shedding light in dark places. While the Vatican has permitted the ordination of female priests, many Catholics are unhappy with the idea, and so the fledgling order is eager to prove its worth. Isabel is called upon to use her training as an anthropologist to solve a mystery on the planet of Virimund. The ExtraSolar Corporation, attempting to exploit the supposedly uninhabited planet's resources, has stumbled upon a small group of children. A brief and violent encounter has left several people dead. In the aftermath of the clash, ESC employees have brought back a native, a little girl named Oa. Isabel struggles through a tangle of predatory corporate and scientific interests so that she can protect and honour the girl as a human being made in the image of God. (Some of these issues will look familiar to students of the history of missions and colonialism.) At the same time, she begins to realize that there is something very unusual about Oa. To complicate matters further, Isabel must work with Simon Edwards, a medical scientist with whom she has a complex personal history.
The main appeal of The Child Goddess does not lay in its scientific ideas. Marley gives hints that allow the astute reader to unravel most of Virimund's mystery long before Isabel and Simon. The book's chief strength is its characters: a desperate executive, a fame-hungry scientist, a quiet longshoreman, a girl burdened with secret shame. I felt the tension and anguish between Isabel, Simon, and Simon's wife, Anna, was conveyed especially well. The religious elements are powerful but subtle. Isabel strives to seek, to understand while also valuing and protecting, to be a Christian humanist in a world that belittles the value of both religion and humanity. She also strives to remain faithful to her vow of celibacy, to devote herself to God. In Isabel's time, the Church has accepted as authentic the ancient Gospel of Mary, and Marley hints at other shifts within Christianity. But Isabel is no Gnostic; in all essentials she is an orthodox Christian, devoted to Christ and to her church. Mary of Magdala is important to her, not because she represents the divine feminine, but because Mary was the first to see and proclaim the risen Christ, His first apostle. The story also explores Oa's spiritual life. Her spirituality centres on Raimu-ke, an enigmatic ancestor goddess. Through this and other elements of the story, Marley develops interesting insights into the nature of religious devotion, shame, self-sacrifice, exclusion, and martyrdom. Elliot Hanowski (July, 2007)
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