Recent Reading: Heart of Gold and “Blood” by Sharon Shinn

So, recently Sharon Shinn kindly sent me a link to this review of Mountain at Romantic Times, plus a tip that 4½ stars is as good as it gets for RT Reviews because some time ago they apparently defined a book as perfect and 5 stars and declared they were never again giving another book 5 stars. Which is a great story, isn’t it? I don’t know which book that was, but it must have been something.

Anyway, this led to a conversation about this and that, including your favorite little details you put in a book that you’re not sure a reader is going to notice, and that led to my re-reading the novella “Blood” in the collection Quatrain, which is by far my favorite story in that collection and if you’ve read the stories, did you happen to notice any little artistic details about the way the stories begin and end? Because I totally missed them until Sharon told me about them and I took my copy off the shelf and looked again.

And this is all a long lead in for why I finally read Heart of Gold, which has been on my TBR pile for quite some time . . . possibly over a decade . . . or two. I was not in any hurry because from the outside this book looks a good deal like a story wrapped around an Important Message About Racism and Sexism and my tolerance for that kind of thing is, shall we say, limited. Regardless of the author.

Now that I’ve read it, I think the first thing you need to know about Heart of Gold is that it isn’t a heavy-handed Message Story about Racism, which it definitely might be given the indigo and gulden races. This story is about race, sure, and prejudice, and so on, but neither race maps at all well onto any real-world race, which really saves it from reading like Message Fic. This lets the much more complicated and thoughtful exploration of small-r-racism read as thoughtful rather than preachy.

The second thing you need to know about Heart of Gold is that it also isn’t a heavy-handed Message Story about Sexism, despite the agrarian / matriarchal indigo society and the industrial / patriarchal gulden society. Both are about as extreme as you can get, but neither society is presented as much better or way worse than the other. No, really.

I wouldn’t actually want to live in either society – both are highly constraining, and neither is at all ideal. Neither the indigo nor the gulden society is exactly nice, neither the indigo nor the gulden are the good guys – you have to look to specific individuals for that. So what we have in this story are individuals of both races who struggle to find their place in their own society and cope with individuals of the other race and society. Shinn develops the sexism thing, sure, but with way more complexity than you might guess.

The third thing you need to know about Heart of Gold is that it isn’t a Romeo-and-Juliet story at all. I mean, sure, it’s a romance, because this is Sharon Shinn, right? When we encounter Kitrini, an indigo woman with an all-consuming passion for a gulden man, we could be mistaken for thinking Oh my God, here comes an angst fest. But this is actually not the central relationship. Which we ought to guess from the limited amount of time we spend with Kitrini, because though she’s important, she definitely plays second fiddle to Nolan, an indigo man who is actually the central protagonist. Let me add that the back cover, all about he’s-a-rational-scientist / she’s-a-rebel-at-heart is not exactly wrong, but it’s pretty misleading, because that is also handled with more complexity than the description implies. Everything in this story is handled with more complexity than the description implies.

The fourth thing you need to know about Heart of Gold is that the novella “Blood” in the collection Quatrain is set in the same world, and it’s just outstanding. Remember not that long ago when I took a stab at sorting out my ten favorite books by Sharon Shinn? Well, I forgot about “Blood” because it’s a novella, not a novel. But seriously, you should pick up the collection just for “Blood.” It’s that good. Also, it stands perfectly alone, so there’s no particular need to read Heart of Gold first, or at all, for that matter, in order to read “Blood.”

I should add that the other stories in the collection are pretty good too; it’s just that “Blood” is the best and the one I go back to and re-read.

If you have read “Blood,” what did you think? If you read it now – a good plan that I thoroughly endorse – let me know what you think. I bet you all give it two thumbs up.

Now that I’ve finally read it, I will add that Heart of Gold may also be somewhere in the top ten for me. Even Kitrini wasn’t too hard to connect with despite her emotional volatility, not my favorite character trait, and Nolan is wonderful. The plotting is good; I didn’t guess who the actual bad guys were until the reveal. (I even pegged the wrong person as nefarious. Whoops.) The science is good – Sharon has commented to me in the past that science is not her thing, but she did a fine job with this one. Not that I couldn’t quibble, but making the details of the science fit your plot has a long and honorable history in science fiction. (I say as I confidently invent not one but two forms of FTL drive for my space opera.)

Also, while we’re on the subject of artistic details the author puts in that the reader might miss, let me add that the bit where Kitrini is really arguing with herself while teaching Nolan gulden verbs is just delightful. If you read this now, I hope you all enjoy that part as much as I did.

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