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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Our Lady of the Islands: Butchered God, Book One by Shannon Page, Jay Lake

Our Lady of the Islands was a finalist for the Endeavour Award as well as one of Publishers Weekly's Best Books. If not for a flaw I missed on the first read, it might have won. This novel succeeds in ways that Jay Lake's previous novels have not--primarily, the story movement is clearer (Mainspring came closest in this regard). His career may be remembered for his short fiction--his last collection won the Locus Poll and Endeavor awards--although that judgement remains to be seen.

Lake spun reams of wildly different tales, ventriloquizing wildly different voices. Words flew from his fingertips like water off a wet dog. Perhaps Page's contribution is that of the potter, molding the story clay into useful yet dynamic shapes. The pair complimented one another in this cooperative venture.

Sian Kattë is a middle-aged businesswoman bordering on her elderly years; some things she used to do, she can no longer. She has a husband but enjoys an understanding with her husband that allows for lover who is a ship's captain. Her world is up-ended when she walks into a parade of the Butchered God's followers. They beat her unconscious.

When she awakens, her body has healed of bruises and broken bones. More than that, she heals a young boy of a laceration that should have maimed or even killed him but did not. The boy's arm healed where she'd touched him. This would be wonderful if it were not for the major religion's priests who do not allow female priests or healers. She becomes their target and, later, their prisoner when they learn what she can purportedly do.

Arian des Chances, the wife of Alizar's ruler, meanwhile, has been appealing to the old religion's priests to heal her son. They hem and haw, leave her waiting and frustrated to the point of seeking another religion whose acolytes still perform miracles. But then she hears of this healer. She plans to go into disguise to get the healer to work wonders on her son.

Clocking in at over five hundred pages for a hardcover, this qualifies as a fat fantasy, with all the traps and enchantments that such readers hold for the field. On my first read, I thought some of the later middle sagged. But it wasn't the middle. My confusion shows how well Page and Lake sucked me in up to the last fifth. My first read so fully engaged my brain in story, that I missed it was the final act of the book that stuttered. They trimmed the conflicts down to just one major one where, before, they had deftly juggled several. A long denouement followed the climax, which was interesting on the first read---less so, on the second. Then again, I'm the kind of reader who believes Tolkien could have ended The Lord of the Rings earlier. Long and leisurely is the fat fantasy genre's modus operandi.

[Edited to add: I waffled further. The denouement is fascinating. It holds the same appeal as the prolific "Where Are They Now?" articles. Plenty of readers will gobble this down.]

The previous "understanding" mentioned earlier turns out not to be understood by all parties. This seems a minor complaint but it undermines our main character's reliability, which I doubt we're meant to distrust. Hopefully, this will clarify in a future volume--either way.

I hadn't considered the novel to be particularly feminist--older female protagonists, yes--but a number of reviewers labeled it as such. So I applied the Bechdel test--that is, does the secondary gender only speak of the primary? It didn't pass. But the secondary characters wouldn't have been nearly as interesting if they had spoken of their own concerns.  The protagonists were more fully developed than their loyal lackeys, anyway (readers should be more interested in the primary characters than secondary).

The antagonists, men, were bumbling, but I read them as that faceless bureaucratic monster that permeates our society, not as undervaluing the opposite gender. The antagonists were occasionally clever as well. As I said, it isn't particularly feminist, except as a call to include women in religious roles--a minor theme--but it may appeal to feminists due to the nature of the protagonists more than their situations.

Instead, I read it more as a response to the then common protests against the "one percent" [Occupy _____]. But this theme fell away. The next books may address this further. I am curious where this might lead since our protagonists are almost entirely the one percent. They are presented as willing to get their hands dirty. Where they gained that perspective is a mystery if they've been like this their whole lives. Maybe later books in the series will explore this. Or maybe they will unveil an entirely different theme. The main point on theme is that Lake and Page do provide food for thought.

While this is part of a series, the novel stands alone from predecessors and from any future sequels.  I recommend it for any regular readers of Jay Lake's or readers of fantasy. The characters are rich, their troubles absorbing.

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