This is one of Shinn’s earlier novels. I thought I read everything by her – she is one of my favorite writers – but to my surprise, I remembered neither the plot nor the characters of this book. Maybe I did read it, when it first came out in 1999, but I don’t recall it, so this was a fresh and enchanting reading experience.
The story is complex. On the surface, it’s a murder mystery. There is space travel involved, albeit in the background, and the actions transpire on another planet, so it has a sci-fi undertones. It also includes a love story, the protagonist’s struggle with his own self-doubts, and an exploration of faith and religion. It’s such a potent brew, it could’ve been easy for a writer to slide into moralizing or preaching, but Shinn is too good a writer for that.
Her story is an amazingly tactful and deep trip into the human psyche. The murder mystery is just a frame for the characters’ interactions, as they try to understand rights and wrongs, love and faith, guilt and forgiveness.
A quick plot recap: on the planet of Semay, someone has been murdering priestesses of two main religions. Both religions have the same goddess Ava, but they approach her in different, ways. The adherents of Triumphantes believe that faith should be joy. They embrace wealth and happiness; their temples are stuffed with priceless artifacts, and their priestesses celebrate their goddess with their bodies and their souls.
The adherents of Fideles believe that wealth is incompatible with Ava. They give up their worldly possessions, tend to the poor, nurture their souls, and maintain celibacy.
Both religions coexist peacefully, and for most citizens on Semay, any priestess, no matter Triumphante or Fidele, is sacrosanct. When a vicious killer start murdering indiscriminately the priestesses of both sects, the local police is baffled. They ask the interstellar federation of planets for help, and a special investigator Cowen Drake is dispatched to solve the mystery and stop the killing.
Drake is the protagonist. A hard-core professional military, he left his own faith in his childhood. Over the years, he’s had his share of personal tragedies, and he doesn’t think much of any deity. His encounters with priestesses of both sects, his drive to understand them, and through them the motivations of their murderer, comprises this story.
It’s Drake’s journey. A man of integrity and courage, he is frozen inside like an icicle. It takes the priestesses of both Triumphantes and Fideles to propel him back to life, to reopen his heart for warmth, love, and joy. The deep conflict between the priestesses’ convictions and his own spiritual denial eventually jolts him back to full humanity from his cold robot-like existence. His emotional gamut unfolds like a mental rebirth – painful, hard, and necessary – and it’s shadowed by his mundane murder investigation: questioning witnesses, visiting crime scenes, reading police reports.
The story is slowly building to its inevitable outward crescendo – the confrontation with the killer – but Drake’s inner self-discovery provides a powerful counterpoint to the action sequences.
In the end, he doesn’t convert, doesn’t start believing in Ava. That would be too blatant, too straightforward. Instead, he accepts others into the inner sanctuary of his soul. He embraces vulnerability as a gift, not a burden. He learns to love again.
A beautiful book.