Cover Image: Guardian

Guardian

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Something a little different from Haldeman (whose sci-fi I am more familiar with).
GUARDIAN is an alternative history adventure, about a remarkable woman during the gold rush in late nineteenth-century Alaska. On the run from the Pinkertons, Rosa meets an incarnation of the trickster god who turns out to be rather more than first assumed...

An interesting and engaging mystery/adventure/SF novel. Well-written, with a good protagonist. Recommended if you're looking for something a little different from the author.
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First published in 1992; published digitally by Open Road Media on September 27, 2016

Rosa Tolliver leaves her husband in Boston after he sodomizes their son. Rosa and her son travel to Dodge City, which is still the far west at the end of the nineteenth century. Most of the journey is by steamboat, giving Joe Haldeman a chance to reflect on Mark Twain and to discuss a number of historical facts that he seems to toss out at random. Not much else of substance happens in the first third of the novel, except for the occasional appearance of a talkative but cryptic raven.

Eventually Rosa takes a lover and her son gets the idea to prospect for gold in Alaska. Rosa gets a gig teaching in a small Alaskan town while her son and new lover are off in the mountains mining for gold. Rosa agrees to this plan despite her raven friend telling her “No Gold.” Rosa is eventually accused of being a witch, and she might be one, given the amount of advice she receives from ravens. Or maybe the raven is a witch. Or maybe the local Alaskan shaman gave Rosa some peyote when she wasn’t looking. The would explain the interplanetary travel that pops up in the last third of the novel.

Assuming they’re real and even if they’re not, the aliens Rosa meets are the most interesting part of the book. Until they appear, the story is pleasant and humane but a little dull. After they leave, the story returns to being pleasant and humane but a little dull.

Rosa’s travels with her raven guardian allow Haldeman another chance to philosophize. His musings — metaphor presented as reality — might not be profound, but they are reasonably wise and intellectually stimulating.

Haldeman had an occasional tendency to delve into religious themes (Forever Free being an obvious example). Guardian flirts with the concept of God but doesn’t pretend to offer any answers. Haldeman is at his best when he writes about war and its consequences, and there is a bit of that here. Haldeman’s prose is also, at times, quite elegant, and in places the story is touching.

Despite the injection of the guardian and angelic aliens and a place where souls dwell and a chatty raven, Haldeman manages to make Guardian into a science fiction novel (rather than the fantasy it initially seems to be) thanks to alternate universes, which can be used to explain just about anything if you set your mind to it. Still, the story seems to be inspired by Carlos Castaneda and I have the strong suspicion that peyote is a better explanation for Rosa’s experiences than travels though the multiverse with a guardian raven.

I’m not sure Guardian coheres as it jumbles together an adventure story, a travelogue, an alternate history, religious mythology, and a mixture of fantasy and science fiction themes. There are certainly parts of the novel I enjoyed and I didn’t dislike any of it, but a good bit of purposeless description does little to advance the late-arriving themes that give the story its heft. The really good parts of the novel are too brief to make the novel as a whole really good

RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS
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In the early 20th c., a woman and her son escape her abusive husband and travel across the US in search of a safe place far enough away that he can’t find them. Eventually, they head to Alaska during the gold rush there. At crucial moments, a raven appears and seems to intervene to protect them. This story, which seems like a fairly interesting and compelling historical fiction with some beautiful depictions of early American landscapes and just a touch of mysticism, takes up the first three-quarters of the novel.

Eventually, though, at a time of great stress and grief, the raven shows his true form and takes her on a journey through the cosmos and dimensions. It is revealed to her that she has an important mission in the future. This mission is accomplished in the final few pages of the book.

Joe Haldeman is one of those authors I have heard a great deal about and have always meant to read so, when Guardian was offered on Netgalley, I was thrilled to finally have the opportunity. The book is told in the first person as a memoir written near the end of the woman’s life. I enjoyed the historical fiction part of the novel but the second part didn’t seem to fit well with it. It felt more like a fever dream – a story within a story if you like – based on the Native legends she had learned in Alaska and at first, I expected her to wake up with a new resolve to continue despite her losses. Instead, the story morphed into a kind of scifi/mystical hybrid leading to a rather sudden and somewhat unsatisfying ending to the story.  

Don’t get me wrong – as I said, I enjoyed the first three quarters of the book and I didn’t hate the last quarter. It was just that, for me, at least, it didn’t feel like the two parts fit together. In fact, they seemed to fight against each other.

Still, Haldeman is clearly a fine writer and his descriptions of the travels throughout the US especially Alaska during the Rush kept me glued to the page. I’m not sure who I would recommend this book to – readers of historical fiction would surely enjoy the first part and scifi fans, the second. I did find the philosophy of hope offered by the story welcome especially right now. Perhaps, though, this wasn’t my best introduction to the author. However, given the quality of his writing, it won’t deter me from looking for other books by him in the future. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Open Roads for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review
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2.5 stars. Possibly less. 

"Science fiction" is used lightly in this one. It's an old lady's travel memoirs about running away from her awful husband, with her son. I was intrigued about her adventures in Kansas and Alaska (a woman gold miner in Alaska! Spirit travels with Raven!) but what excitement I had quickly petered out. 

There's a lot of boat trips. So many boat trips. Lots of missionaries (the church people not the sex position) and school teaching. Lots of showing vs telling. Theoretically this woman is a famous dime novelist and pretty damn good at dialogue, but damn if I didn't see any of it during this entire book. And the sci-fi-ness is, well, disappointing to say the least. Normally it would be a DNF except I loved The Forever War and was waiting for Haldeman to come through.

I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review.
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