Heart of Fire, by Sharon Shinn

>> Thursday, August 26, 2004

I read Heart of Gold, by Sharon Shinn for discussion in one of the book groups I belong to. I'd never read Shinn before, but I'd heard good things about her Samaria series.

In the world of Heart of Gold, two major races vie for dominance: the matriarchal indigo and the patriarchal gulden. For centuries they have lived separate lives, but times are changing. More young indigo men attend college before marrying, more young people are moving to the city and meeting others of different races, and strict Apartheid-type laws have been lifted.

Kit is a high caste indigo woman who was raised in the gulden society by her eccentric, anthropologist father. Nolan is an indigo man who's been allowed to pursue advanced science studies and work at the esteemed Biolab for a few years. He's developed two drugs that have saved gulden lives from fatal diseases, although his accomplishments aren't appreciated by his family.

Nolan, Kit, and their companions are dragged into a flash point political situation, complicated by Kit's love for a young gulden leader who may or may not be responsible for recent terrorist acts.
This was an excellent blend of fantasy with a bit of romance. A very strong read: B+.

The best thing about the book was definitely the worldbuilding, which was truly fascinating. I loved the detail Shinn went into when setting up her different cultures and ways of life, and especially the dynamics between them. However, I wasn't too enamoured of the cultures themselves. Any society whose laws give one gender formal power over another is one I do not like and feel at least a little uncomfortable reading about.

Still, I found myself having preferences for one of them, the indigo. I had the sneaky feeling that, unlike me, Shinn had a bit more fondness for the gulden society (I know many people have problems with role reversals, maybe this was part of it). This bothered me a little bit, since to me, it was so obviously a horrible, horrible culture to live in. To me, a society that treats both genders equally would be the ideal, but lacking that, I look at how the most unfortunate are treated. The Indigo women might have power over the men, but even though they couldn't inherit, the men had freedom to make a living and live their lives independently, if they wanted to. Even if they followed tradition and married and became traditional husbands, they were treated with much more respect than gulden men treated their wives. And if you were a gulden woman whose family married her to a cruel man, you pretty much would be condemned to a hellish life.

I can't remember whose theory it was, but basically, this person proposed a method to build the perfect society, which I've always thought was brilliant. How to do this? Well, put a group of people to the task of making the rules by which this theoretical society will be governed. These people know that they will die as soon as they finish their work, and that they will be reborn immediately, but they don't know if they'll be reborn as men or women, as upper, middle, or lower class, as rural or city dwellers. They don't know what their race will be, or if they'll be ugly or good-looking, fat or thin, intelligent or dumb. The idea is that they'll try to make sure that whatever they become after they rebirth, they at least will have chances to build a happy life.

Bringing this back on topic, I remembered this theory when I was thinking about how one would evaluate whether one society is intrinsically better than another one. Maybe, by asking onselves: "if I were to die and be reborn in a random position in either culture A or culture B, which would I choose?". I have no doubts in my mind that anyone who is given this choice between indigo or gulden society, would choose the indigo.

Ok, enough of my yammering about this, back to the story itself. Characters. I found the characters quite well done. These were people who were rebelling against their very restrictive society. I thought it was good, and in keeping to some of the role-reversal themes of the story, that it was Kit who had been rebelling for a long time, who was the "bad girl", in a way, and that Nolan started out as comfortable with the ways things were and only as the book progressed, started feeling he needed to fight against the injustices he perceived.

I especially liked Nolan, who I thought was a wonderful hero. I don't know if it was particularly realistic that a man who had been as complacent as he, who had never shown any instances of possible rebellion against the system, would have broken out so suddenly and so spectacularly, but I did like seeing it ;-)

Kit was ok, too. The only thing that didn't ring true for me about her was her reactions to Jex, the way she allowed him to treat her like trash. That didn't feel like something a person strong enough to rebel against her society's way of life, simply because she thought it was wrong, would do. And given the way she reacted when she realized that it had actually been Jex who had set the bomb in the Centrifuge, I would have expected her to come to this position earlier, the minute she realized that he was capable of being ruthless enough to kill random people just to further his political ends.

The romance between these two people wasn't really the point of the book, but it was an interesting addition, spicing things up a bit, so to speak. I liked that this element was left a bit open-ended. That is, I don't really doubt what will happen, but one of those saccharine epilogues so typical of romance novels would have been out of place.

There were two very defined halfs in Heart of Gold. In the first half, we are basically introduced to the world the book is set in and to the characters and their friends and coworkers and families. These minor characters really well done, serving to illustrate both how things had always been in these worlds and how they're changing at the time of the story.

In this first half Shinn used a narration technique I was a bit ambivalent towards. She'd go back and forth in time, showing the same events from different perspectives. We'd be following either Nolan or Kit until we came to a certain climactic, or semi-climactic event (their meeting in the corridor of the complex right after Kit had been visiting Jex, Kit approaching the gulden man at the ball, the explosion in the Centrifuge), and at that point we'd go back in time, sometimes days at a time, and follow the other until we got to that same event. On one hand, it was an interesting effect, allowing us to see things from both POVs, but on the other, as I said, it was frustrating, and made the first half of the book less compelling.

The action really took off once Kit and Nolan took off on their trip, and from then on, I couldn't put the book down. The best thing was that, even in the midst of this faster pace, there were enough quiet times for Nolan and Kit to interact.

It was a good introduction to an author I'll probably be reading more from.


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