I was at SpoCon last weekend, and acquired a book. Not just any book, but Arslan by M. J. Engh, who was also at SpoCon. She and I have talked before, and we shared a couple of panels, and the discussion around the book from people who had read it was interesting, so I went to the dealer's room and bought it.
Oh. My. God.
I now totally understand Diana Pharaoh Francis's comment to Ms. Engh that Arslan was the most disturbing book she had ever read. I even understand Ms. Engh's only half-joking admonition to "Don't like it!" when she signed my copy for me. It is the sort of book that makes writers crazy because it is so good. Its premise is disturbing, its execution superb, and its characters indelibly damaged, haunting in their individual stalking of their disparate goals.
What is Arslan? Arslan is a very young man from a very obscure place who takes over the world in a week without firing a shot. Things go downhill from there, for everyone. Ms. Engh plays the reader like a violin, running the gamut of reaction. Layers upon layers of character development are in here, amid threads of brilliant SF woven into the fabric with seamless artistry. One cannot help but speculate on if/how/how much the characters and civilization in general have been damaged by the events in the book. Certainly they have all been damaged, but the extent is debatable, given the vagaries of life even without Arslan to stir it up, and the current state of the world.
The book succeeds both as SF (it is being re-released this December as part of a series honoring the grand masters of the genre, a title Ms. Engh richly deserves) and as literature. It makes you think, and the prose is beautiful as well as on point. It starts with a bang and never lets go, and never spends boring pages of exposition explaining how the characters arrived at the starting point of the book. They're completely in the dark as to that themselves, so the reader is too, and it works. Beautifully. The point of the story is not how we got here, but what to do about it.
I learned something from this book. I learned I have a long way to go as a writer, but my horizons have been expanded, and I am eager to take up the challenge. I learned more about characterization from Arslan than from any book I have ever read, ironic given that one of the panels I sat in on with Ms. Engh was about characterization, and never touched on the absolute brilliance she brings to it. She did share that she dreamed about Arslan, that he sprang from somewhere deep within her, and nothing she has written since has matched him in depth. One hopes not. One Arslan in your life is enough.
But what a learning experience he is.
This book is not a fluffy beach read. You will not soon forget it, and I recommend it to anyone looking to step up from pure amusement to something that might leave them a little uncomfortable, but wiser. It avoids every cliche, breaks new ground, and forces you to simply take the ride without expectation of the usual rewards.
Sorry, Mary Jane, but I liked it.