With her Phoenix Legacy, M. K. Wren did for science fiction romance what Mary Stewart did for fantasy – except that fewer people noticed. That’s a shame, because the Phoenix trilogy is terrific.
Despite that, I didn’t pick up A Gift Upon the Shore for many years, mostly because I’m not much of a post-apocalyptarian. But with its recent reissue, and Wren’s confounding failure to write any other books (This is her only other SF novel, though she also wrote a series of mystery stories.), I decided to buy it.
The story deals with a writer who comes to live with an artist on the Oregon coast, just before nuclear war. (Coincidentally, Wren lived with an artist, on the Oregon coast…) The story explores the women’s struggle to survive, and the different ways they approach their legacies. Key issues include knowledge (a trove of books), reproduction (as an imperative in a depopulated world), and religion (for good or evil).
Some people have disliked the way religion is treated, and I agree that it’s not placed in a very flattering light. If you’re an easily-offended Christian, this may not be the book for you. For others, the book poses some interesting questions about how we would prioritize our values if push came to shove.
Wren makes what I assume was a deliberate choice to put Mary, the writer, between two more extreme views. So far, so good. Unfortunately, many of the choices Mary makes are simply not credible – at least, not in the person Wren has shown to us. While we understand her to be balancing difficult choices, she in fact is extremely malleable, and is apparently driven by desires that manifest only vaguely in her own mind and emotions.
The book alternates flashbacks as a young woman and a present as an old woman. The present scenes are more consistent, but even foolish youth doesn’t adequately explain the past Mary’s choices.
All in all, an interesting story, but substantially weakened by a protagonist that simply doesn’t ring true. Worth picking up for a story about how to balance imperatives, but without the impact of the far better Phoenix Legacy.