Strauss, Victoria. 1999. The Garden of the Stone. New York: Avon Eos.

Reviewed 25 December 1999

The Garden of the Stone (cover) It would be convenient to begin this review like so many reviews in A Certain Publishing Industry Periodical would (yes, I know it was reviewed There, but I haven't read it). Something like this:

"This continuation of Strauss's fantasy series picks up where she left off at the end of The Arm of the Stone . . ."

Much to Garden's benefit, that description bears little resemblance to the book.

Rather than follow the stereotyped Interminable Fantasy Series structure, in which each book begins a few seconds after the end of the previous one, Garden is actually a real stand-alone story. This is entirely consistent with the thematic core of this series: the nature and creation of myth and faith. In other words, this is not a book to read with one's brain off. It's not pretentious (such as, say, Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet); neither is it turgid, or filled with more characters than one can count conveniently. It does not continue to focus on the same character or characters as did its predecessor(s), ignoring the necessary shifts of viewpoint over long periods of time.

That's enough. I've said what Garden is not. What is it?

The Arm of the Stone (cover) The milieu Strauss has established continues to evolve in Garden, rather than just sit there as a convenient locale for the protagonist's ego trips. The equivalent of the Reformation (the subversive movement that Bron coopted in The Arm of the Stone) is not a unified rebellion, but a general goal for a number of (oft-unfriendly) factions. These factions vary in their natures for both philosophical and picayune reasons—like any revolution. Similarly, the Counter-Reformation (the remaining Arm) is itself split into factions.

The particular conflict between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation is far more interesting than the usual "New Age v. Christians" or "Christians v. Lions" nonsense. The struggle between handpower and mindpower evokes both the blue collar/white collar warfare of Western society and LeGuin's early short stories "The Masters" and "The Stars Below," both of which are collected in The Wind's Twelve Quarters. (That's right. You're supposed to go read them.) Strauss's concept of the List bears a disturbing resemblance to the Fundamentalist Right's efforts to eliminate subjects with which they disagree from the schools; minor issues like evolution, human rights, gender and racial discrimination, religious tolerance, censorship, and the Bill of Rights (except, of course, for the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment).

Garden results from a very difficult, but eminently sensible, narrative choice: a complete shift in the narrative structure. Arm is very much a single-viewpoint, single-threaded narrative informed almost completely by Bron's rise to prominence. Garden, on the other hand, has multiple protagonists, each of which gets long narrative sequences in his or her own viewpoint. This is rather like the contrast between The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. This decision allows Strauss to build momentum for each character, rather than futilely attempt to simulate simultaneity (in prose, an inherently linear form) with rapid cross-cutting between viewpoints.

By this time, you're probably wondering when I'm going to get to the plot summary. I'm not. That is, in fact, one of the strengths of Garden: a summary of the plot feels like an unfair reduction of the book. Strauss has carefully integrated plot, character, and milieu to an extent all too rare in contemporary speculative fiction. The book is not a simple morality tale, although it has moral aspects (of uncommon nature and depth). Neither, though, is it another mass-produced quasi-picaresque or quasi-quest or quasi-roman fleuve or right-wing-apologetic politicoeconomic tome or roman á clef. Strauss has the courage to avoid the easy questions, and the easy answers. The actual answer could possibly be summarized as "neither technology or magic is enough by itself," but that is much too simplistic a summary.

If Garden has a weakness, it is in the dialog, and a very minor one at that. Too often, it is difficult to tell who is speaking based on diction and tone. For example, all of the Roundheads—even Jolyon—seem to have fallen into the same speech patterns, although they all came from different childhoods. But this is a minor weakness in an excellent book.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Avon's inept marketing of Arm nearly buried this book. That would have been a tremendous shame. Garden is a true novel in this era of the Interminable Fantasy Series—which should be recommendation enough.

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