Friday, December 26, 2008

Patrice Sarath "Gordath Wood": FACT reading group discussion

13 people attended the discussion of "Gordath Wood". 5 people have read Patrice Sarath's short stories before. Everybody except 3 people started the book. 7 finished it. The rest were planning to finish it.

"Gordath Wood" starts with two young women, Lynn and Kate, venturing out (separately) into the woods in search of a runaway horse. Unbeknownst to themselves, they each cross into a parallel world resembling medieval Europe. Before they know it, the two heroines are dragged into a war between two feudal lords. As they try to find a way to come back to their world, or find their mission in the one they ended up in, it turns out that the portal between the worlds has become unstable, threatening destruction in both the parallel and their own world.

The two women are very involved with horses, and so big parts of the text revolve around horse riding and care. Several readers observed that the author taught them more about horses than they wanted to know; however, she did it in a non-boring way. The horse specifics are woven into the plot and don't overshadow the story.

Character-driven, not a concept-driven story

Everybody agreed this was a character-driven rather than concept-driven story. Several people liked its vivid, realistic characters. The villains weren't all bad, and good people weren't all good. Still, not everybody found the characters realistic, noting that the bad guys -- the general, the detective -- acted too stupid to be believable. "The villains were so illogical in their behavior that they seemed just devices to have tension in the book," said a reader. Examples: the general had Kate flogged after she brought him weapons and radios; the detective went after Joe, and later after Lynn, for no reason. Kate might have been the most likeable character of them all, but even she occasionally did reckless, impulsive things. Some group members explained it as Kate merely being a teenager: having raised teenagers themselves, they were familiar with those patterns of behavior.

Most people thought Kate was more interesting than the other female protagonist, Lynn. One reader commented that Lynn mainly existed for men to fall in love with her. Kate, on the other hand, was more active. "She had more interactions with people on widely diferent levels, from people who tended the horses, to women who did menial labor, to the doctor and the general. We saw a lot more of the culture through her," said a reader. Some readers could identify with Joe more than any other character; others said they could not identify with a drifter. A few readers could not identify with any character.

Despite a cover that suggested (at least to some people) Harlequin romance, this book notably lacked romance cliches. Even though some characters fall in love, those love stories do not end in a typical romance novel way. One person liked the author's "non-girly" approach to relationships, and declared this book suitable reading for men. Yet a reader, regardless of gender, who looks for something more than character development in a SF/F story may not find it here. A few people said they prefer a genre book to have at least some unusual conceptual element, but there were none in this book. So, enjoyable as it was, this type of story would never become their main reading fare.

For a first novel, it's...

Since "Gordath Wood" is Patrice Sarath's first novel, there were a lot of "for a first novel, it's..." judgments floating around. The style and characaterization in "Gordath Wood" was found to be better than that of many other debut novels this group has read over the recent years. Readers thought "Gordath Wood" balanced many points of view successfully, which is not easy for a beginner author. On the other hand, the multitude of viewpoints confused some people, especially since some characters changed sides in the war. It didn't help that the viewpoint often jumped back and forth between two characters within one chapter.

One reader thought the story suffered from serious logistical problems. He thought some characters' location, direction, and speed of movement did not compute. You'll have some people at point A, and after a certain time you'll find them at point B, where they could not have gotten so fast. It was also not clear whether the portal of travel between world was located between two rock formations, or if it spanned a larger area of the woods.

Beside some fuzzy travel-related math, the world portrayed in "Gordath Wood" was found inconsistent on a larger conceptual level. On one hand, nature looked the same on both sides of the portal, and people on both worlds spoke some dialect of English, which suggested the parallel world was an alternative Earth. But the stars in the sky were different, which would imply it's not the same planet. One reader said he would have been curious to see if Patrice Sarath had worked out the relationship of the two worlds in her head, or it if was just handwaving. Most people suspected the latter. To her credit, though, the author did not employ many arbitrary kinds of magic, avoiding the problems other writers introduce when they pull out magic objects out of the hat at a character's convenience. It was also good that the characters of "Gordath Wood" did not cross back and forth between worlds at will. They stayed on one side or the other for most of the story.

Personally what I liked the most was bringing the economics of our world into that of a medieval society. And I don't mean just the fact that the modern humans smuggled guns into the medieval world. I was most impressed with the twist that happens at the end and explains some characters' true motivations for the war. They were going to take advantage of the medieval country's untapped natural resourcwes. I know this has already been done by Charles Stross in "Merchant Princes" series, but Charles Stross' characters didn't capture me the way Patrice Sarath's did.

Inconsistencies notwithstanding, most people enjoyed the story and were looking forward to reading the sequel. One reader, though, was disappointed to find out there's a sequel: she thought all the plot ends were wrapped too perfectly in the first book.

After the meeting the group met with Patrice Sarath for dinner, where she answered some of our questions about this book and its characters, as well as her future plans. For example, she told us that Kate's character wasn't based on Patrice's teenage daughter. It was based on Patrice herself, or rather the kind of person she perceived herself to be in her adolescence.

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