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The Silences of Home
Caitlin Sweet
Penguin Canada, 496 pages


Ted Nasmith
The Silences of Home
Caitlin Sweet
Caitlin Sweet is a graduate of McGill University, Montreal. After graduation she taught English as a second language in southern Mexico. Her first novel, A Telling of Stars was published to great acclaim in January 2003. The Quill & Quire called it "an impressive debut," and The Edmonton Journal wrote, "It's a strong first novel that should have readers waiting for Sweet's next." A Telling of Stars made the Jury's Recommended Reading list at the 2004 Sunburst Awards, and was a finalist for the 2004 Best Long-Form Work in English at the Aurora Awards. From 1998 until 2003, she worked as an administrative assistant at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. She currently lives in Toronto with her husband and their two daughters.

SF Site Review: The Silences of Home

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

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Penguin Books clearly has high hopes for new Toronto fantasy writer Caitlin Sweet, whom they recently toured through Vancouver and Victoria. Whether her novels will be bestsellers remains to be seen, but there's no question that they have a lyrical stylist on their hands.

Sweet's first book, A Telling of Stars, (2003) was a most unusual debut novel for a young author. In a single narrative thread, it recounted a young woman's journey through grief and vengeance after the murder of her family by Sea Raiders. In that book Jaele crossed the Queen's realm, following the path of legendary Queen Galha who was said to have vanquished an army of invaders from the sea.

Sweet, who is no fan of the plethora of series that pervade the Fantasy market, never intended to write another book in the same world, but after she finished the first novel she became fascinated by her own backstory -- the legend of Queen Galha. Who was this queen, anyway? Did her legend bear any resemblance to true historical events? And does it really matter whether legends are true?

In The Silences of Home we meet the real Queen Galha. Far from ruling "with wisdom and kindness" as billed in her legend, Galha is a ruthless power broker who rigidly controls her people and everything they write about her. The setting of the book is the same medieval landscape as in A Telling of Stars (though many centuries earlier) but the narrative structure of this novel is far more complex, involving a large cast of viewpoint characters.

The people drawn into this unfolding tragedy include Aldron, a "teller" so frighteningly powerful that he is banished from his nomadic tribe; Leish of the sea people, whose visions inspire his brother to lead a fleet across the sea to fight a disastrous war; and naïve young Lanara, best friend of the queen's daughter. Lanara is the key viewpoint character, as she is both closest to the throne and most bedazzled by Galha's publicity.

Sweet's writing is literary in style and strongly influenced by Spanish fantasy/magical realism. Fans of Guy Gavriel Kay's books, and readers who enjoy intelligent novels with strong characterization, polished imagery and thematic depth, will certainly find her writing a treat.

This book is also accessible to the average genre fan (that is to say, it has a coherent plot, characters you can empathize with, and plenty of action), however some readers will find it very dark. Although Galha "wins" this war, it exacts a dreadful toll on everyone who comes near it. And no one has a corner on the "truth." Even the idealistic Lanara becomes entangled in webs of deceit and silence, and the machinations of the realm's politics.

Still, The Silences of Home is a literary novel. Readers oriented to detailed world building are liable to get irritated with the rather perfunctory 'historical' setting, as Sweet is not interested in surface authenticity. Her characters do not get lice, dysentery, or diseases of malnutrition and nobody seems to have to earn a living. The landscape, while vivid, is far more symbolic than realistic, and the characters' decisions do not always reflect real world logic.

A Telling of Stars was considered "too literary" for American fantasy publishers, but The Silences of Home is more likely to find a market there, as well as widespread readership in Canada.

Copyright © 2005 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at http://www.donna-mcmahon.com/.


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