Cards of Grief by Jane Yolen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have had this book on my Kindle for years. I bought it because it was on sale a long time ago and it sounded really good, but then other books caught my attention more than this one. The only reason I picked up this book at this point was because a colleague in my department suggested we participate in a informal book club. The idea behind the book club is the read things that we wouldn't normally read--trying to stretch ourselves in our reading habits. So, I got to choose the first book, and my colleague asked for something science fiction. I figured that this book would be a good first choice.
Cards of Grief is a very interesting novel. Yolen, at the end of the book, states that this is the only science fiction novel she's ever written, but it isn't even really science fiction. This is more of a fantasy novel with some sci-fi elements. Cards of Grief is about an alien civilization that is under observation by humans. The humans live in a space station or ship that circles the planet and they travel down to the surface on occasion. But that part of the plot is muted and the least interesting part of this novel. The alien civilization, their culture and practices, are what keeps you reading Cards of Grief. It is interesting because while these aliens appear human in many respects, they are very different from our own culture. The main difference is how their entire civilization revolves around the emotion of grief. We might say that our culture focuses on love or anger, but their's focuses on grief. They spend much of their lives grieving their dead loved ones, preparing to grieve for dying loved ones, and hoping that people will grieve when they die. It is interesting how this has shaped their entire civilization.
The writing style is probably the most interesting part of Cards of Grief. It is not presented in chronological order, we don't see the action through the eyes of one or two characters, nor do we have traditional dialogue throughout the story. This novel is told through the notes of the humans that orbit the planet--through the transcripts of their interactions with the denizens of this planet. There are recorded stories, monologues, and transcribed interviews; these are what flesh out the world and this story. It certainly is a very interesting structure. I wouldn't say that I was ever lost while reading Cards of Grief, but it made for a very slow burn of a read. Plot points are unwrapped slowly rather than the break-neck pacing that most modern stories adopt. Everything is told in past tense too. The action of what characters are talking about happened in the past and they are recounting it to another. In the beginning it made me question whether these characters were reliable as narrators, but in the end, I don't think I ever came across something that didn't jive with what another character said. I don't think this story would have been as effective if it were presented in another manner. Yolen understands what she is doing and creates a style that really flavors the book as a whole. The style makes this novel and is what makes the plot and characters interesting.
Yolen is a fine writer; perhaps not the poetic, imagery heavy prose I usually gravitate towards, but Yolen does a good job. I enjoyed this novel for what it was. I am happy that it wasn't longer--I don't think she could have sustained much more in this plot. It was slightly higher than average book for me. I rated it a 7/10 on my own scale, but here I would rate it a 3.5.
View all my reviews