I first ran across Octavia Butler's books in the stacks at Powell's, a couple of decades ago. I didn't buy any. I'd heard her name, and the feeling I got from that and from the books themselves was of serious, dry fiction, ponderous and message-laden - Ursula Le Guin without the sense of humor. I passed, and never felt the need to change my mind.
Then, a few months ago, I ran across her books on sale. They were pretty cheap, and given her reputation, I thought it was about time I gave her a try despite the dull and dusty image. I picked an omnibus edition, and put it on my list.
I'm finally getting down to it, and I have to admit that I was wrong. This book is serious, it's true, and nowhere near the light-hearted vein. But it's also not the self-important 'These Are Big Ideas' tome I expected. In fact, it's a perfectly readable and interesting story about an interesting concept. It's not the dazzlingly insightful social science fiction I had hoped for, but it's certainly not the pretentious manifesto I had feared. It's just a good science fiction book.
Butler does a good job of exploring the practicalities of the powers the chief protagonists have, and manages to imbue secondary characters with a fair amount of depth. While it's always clear who the villain and the hero of the piece are, both Doro and Anyanwu are treated relatively fairly.
I have mixed feelings about Butler's success in bringing the Doro-Anyanwu relationship to life. On one hand, what's described is probably optimistic under the circumstances - the time, their relative levels of experience, etc. Anyanwu, for example, travels from her only home in Africa to North America with remarkable aplomb. On the other hand, I found it disappointing that she so consistently failed to stand up for herself with Doro; that weakness didn't seem to suit her character. Butler may have aimed for a compromise between modern palatability and realism, but I felt she missed the mark.
The book, broken into three time periods, moves along smoothly and fairly rapidly. Not too surprising, but enjoyable. Then, suddenly, it stops. There's a two page epilogue, and that's it. Perhaps Butler originally intended a longer volume, or a trilogy instead of a quartet. In any case, the break is surprising, and a bit awkward.
All in all, a pleasant surprise. Not magical, but certainly well written, intelligent social science fiction worth checking out. I look forward to the rest of the series.