Lest you all think I'm a grumpypants who never met a book he didn't hate, I'll review something I actually liked.
I just (as in yesterday) finished Heart of Gold by Sharon Shinn, and I was greatly impressed. Of course, I expected to be. Sharon Shinn is one of my favorite writers. She's seriously brilliant. If, at my best, I'm half the writer she is, I'll be twice the writer I deserve to be.
In Heart of Gold, Shinn takes on race, gender, and culture. Heart of Gold is low-tech science fiction, taking place on a world that could be ours, except that it is inhabited by (at least) three distinct species who are marked by radically different skin color and sufficient biochemical differences that they are effected by different diseases. The indigo (blue people) dominate the continent where the story takes place, having pushed back the gulden (gold people) again and again. There are also albinos (white people), but they don't come into the story much. At the same time, the indigo have a land-based matriarchy and the gulden have an often violent patriarchy, leading to no end of misunderstanding, as if the typical dance of power and privilege weren't bad enough.
This tri-colored world is experiencing an upheaval akin to America's 1960s. As the indigo population becomes increasingly urbanized, they rub shoulders more and more with the gulden. More young indigo men and women begin to rebel against the strict expectations of their culture. More gulden women find places to flee violent marriages and begin to create a society of their own. Reactionaries and terrorists on both sides rear their heads, and things quickly reach a dramatic crisis point.
Shinn handles this story with grace and compassion. Nobody is the bad guy. Even the terrorists and conspiring genocides are human beings. Everyone struggles with racism, sexism, the expectations of their elders, and the inherent human fear of change.
My Abigail pointed out that the books have another high point: the matriarchy. The indigo matriarchy manages to avoid the three pitfalls that often plague depictions of female-dominated societies in science fiction and fantasy. It isn't demonized and it isn't idealized, and it seems genuinely female. The forceful indigo women are distinctly female, even though they wield all the power in their society. It takes a lot of imagination to invert the patterns of the world we know without falling into either extreme of characterization, but Shinn manages it.
The only thing missing is the other force that shaped the 1960s - Rock and Roll. But even Shinn can't be perfect.
I have always loved Sharon Shinn's work, probably because I think we have a lot in common. Not quality - not yet, anyway - but style. Shinn writes deep, rich settings that are as much characters as the actual people in her stories. And just as the characters grow and change with the events of the story, so to do the settings. I can't say that Shinn bats .1000. Sometimes she falls a little too in love with her settings and the characters get a little flat and she has written at least one clunker (Jenna Starborn, though I haven't read it myself). In general, though, you can expect Sharon Shinn to entertain at least and enlighten at best.
Also, Shinn writes really pretty love stories, and I'm a goon for a good love story.
If Sharon Shinn sounds compelling to you, I recommend Heart of Gold without reservation. I also recommend Archangel and Wrapt in Crystal, Shinn's explorations of religion, and The Shapechanger's Wife and Mystic and Rider, rather straightforward, non-issuey fantasies.