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The Child Goddess, Louise Marley, Ace, 2004, 324 pp.

The Child Goddess is the latest science fiction novel from author Louise Marley. It feels somewhat streamlined in comparison to her previous novel, The Maquisarde, even though it's not significantly shorter (only by about 50 pages). In fact, The Child Goddess feels like a book written for readers who aren't familiar with science fiction or want to find out about the genre. This is an admirable goal, but it's one that has led to the failure of many science fiction novels. Writing science fiction is hard enough, just like any good genre book, and opening out to non-genre readers while keeping the faithful happy seems doubly difficult. The Child Goddess has a wonderful core of sf that follows Orson Scott Card (especially Speaker for the Dead) and Ursula K. Le Guin. The book also features strong characterization and intensely felt personal dilemmas (not to say that such things aren't present in Card and Le Guin, of course!). It's somewhat of a false dichotomy to say that such things make The Child Goddess a book that expands out of the genre; it would be fabulous if all science fiction books had characterization as good as this book, just like a book of any genre could aspire to such a thing. I'm curious to see how this book is received.

The Child Goddess is set a few hundred years in the future, and a few years after the events of one of Marley's previous books, The Terrorists of Irustan. The main character is a woman named Isabel. She is a priest of the new Order of Magdalene and lives in rural Italy. The Magdalenes are trying to make their name as an Order that helps to investigate injustice and uncover hidden truths, and Isabel herself is trained as a medical anthropologist. The Order gets a request: ExtraSolar Corporation has a young child from a planet named Virimund in its keeping back on Earth, and they would like to find out more about the child. Virimund is important to ESC's ongoing expansion and it was thought to be deserted. But some children, apparently part of a lost Earth colony, were found there, and in an ensuing struggle, one child and one ESC worker died. Isabel is supposed to befriend the child and discover more about her (as well as what happened during first contact). Alarmingly, her first discovery is that the ESC administrator and doctor in charge of the child are desperate to keep her quarantined.

The child is named Oa and she is the other major viewpoint character for the novel. We learn a lot about Virimund, how Oa grew up, and, soon enough, what the big secret is (which is disclosed even more quickly by the inside jacket blurb). Due to this narrative structure, the reader understands the cultural reasons why Oa can't speak of her secret long before Isabel does. I'm not sure if this was the wisest way to construct the novel. On one hand, the empathetic connection with Oa is invaluable, and becomes one of the most important reasons for the novel's success. It's also why the book would function well outside of a genre audience. On the other hand, Isabel looks dense and myopic, and while we get many examples of her compassion in action (especially in the way that she befriends Oa so quickly), we get almost nothing of her professional acumen. A medical anthropologist is trained to look for the why that underlies a crisis, and Isabel's skills seem lacking. In the final analysis, I think Marley went with this narrative structure to make the story less about a big twist or a medical mystery and more about the characters, but this choice didn't necessarily lead to a perfect outcome.

I was also a little disconcerted about the way Marley resolves another major character dilemma. Simon is a doctor with World Health and he gets involved in Oa's case as well. Simon and Isabel have a history, even though Simon is still married and Isabel is part of an Order committed to celibacy. Marley writes about their attraction to one another with great sympathy and delicacy; throughout, I was convinced by the quandary of each character, especially on the side of Isabel. Not many science fiction novels are bold enough to present a religious character with sane motivations or a clear head for thinking; Marley grounds us in Isabel's viewpoint and it works quite well. But how are the two going to resolve their problem? If Simon leaves his wife, he becomes a cad, but if he stays, he goes against everything that the book is trying to hard to convince us of. Ditto for Isabel, with lost faith for her possible decision to leave her Order. I think Marley wrote herself into a corner because the outcome of this major plot thread is a distinct disappointment.

I don't want my complaints about the book to loom too large. It's always a compliment to a novel when the reader starts arguing about the characters as if they are real, as if they got a raw deal, and so forth. Plus, the novel is yet another effective dramatization of the dangers of that old human temptation: dehumanizing someone else for personal gain. It's a well-worn message within the genre, but it sadly seems to be just as necessary as ever. The Child Goddess is a strong novel, despite the flaw here or there; it's focused on its characters and a certain emotional effect, and the result is well worth reading. Marley once again proves herself capable of balancing all the different aspects required for a memorable work of science fiction.

Last modified: July 13, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (

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