M.J. Engh can hardly be said to have sailed under the radar. She received the SFWA‘s Author Emeritus award in 2009, and her 1976 novel Arslan was republished in Gollancz‘ SF Masterwork series in 2010. She also published the respected novel Wheel of the Winds in 1988, a less well known book, Rainbow Man, in 1993, and a children’s story, The House in the Snow (1987). But that, along with some short pieces that have not been collected, was pretty much it.
Wheel of the Winds tells the story of The Woman Without a God, captain of a riverboat on the river Sollet that circles the world. In the course of the story, she circumnavigates the world twice. It’s a remarkable character study mixed with intriguing description of a unique world and the human culture that inhabits it.
I was so impressed with Wheel of the Winds that I picked up Arslan without really looking into it. On its face, it wouldn’t appear to be my cup of tea. It’s about the invasion of the US by a central Asian dictator, and more particularly its aftermath. The invasion itself is fairly low key – central events take place in a small US town. The dictator, Arslan, quickly establishes himself with some pretty brutal measures, seen largely through the eyes of Franklin L. Bond (I’m not sure whether we’re meant to think of L. Frank Baum), the school principal. I recall being shocked at what happens, and extremely disturbed. The overall story, in fact, and its depiction of how people react to trauma, is disturbing. However, it’s also extremely powerful and moving.
Rainbow Man is quite different from the previous two, and in my view, the least effective. In a universe where startships travel long distances between ports, and seldom see the same planet twice, it deals with a crewmember who decides to debark on a seemingly pleasant world. Dubbed “Rainbow Man’, the female crewmember tries to understand and fit in with the local people and their opaque culture. Of course there are dark mysteries beneath it all. While the observation is acute, and we do see some of the Rainbow Man’s emotional struggles, it all feels somewhat distant, and is overlaid with a thick (not necessarily deep) serving of philosophy and religion. While the philosophy is not heavy-handed in a self-righteous sense, it obscured the adventure underneath (where the adventure should have been supporting the philosophical examiniation). All in all, it made the thinnish book something of a burden to get through. Given Engh’s success with The Wheel of the Winds and Arslan, she seems simply to have gotten the balance wrong on Rainbow Man – it’s clear that she has the talent to turn out more excellent work if she cared to.
In her other life, Mary Jane Engh is a student of Roman literature and an expert on religious persecution. Her website lists a series of short stories in various magazines, though there’s unfortunately no collection in the offing. In fact, she’s noted that she doesn’t see a return to SFF any time soon. So, if Roman history is not your thing, and you’re looking for an excellent read, I can strongly recommend The Wheel of the Winds. If you’re emotionally tough, Arslan is an equally worthwhile read.
Have you read M. J. Engh? Who’s your favorite low intensity author?