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Heart of Gold
Sharon Shinn
Ace Books, 360 pages

Heart of Gold
Sharon Shinn
Sharon Shinn's previous novels include The Shapechanger's Wife, Archangel, Jovah's Angel and The Alleluia Files. She is a 1996 John W. Campbell Award nominee, and winner of the William Crawford Award for Achievement in Fantasy.

Sharon Shinn Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Alleluia Files
SF Site Review: Wrapt in Crystal
SF Site Review: The Alleluia Files
Sharon Shinn Tribute Site
Sharon Shinn Tribute Site
An Interview with Sharon Shinn

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Science fiction or romance? It's a question that comes to mind when reading Sharon Shinn, who uses elements of both to craft her novels. But while purists may want to debate the distinction, it's just as easy for fans of either genre to let definitions slide, and simply read Shinn's books for the absorbing, enjoyable entertainments they are.

The world of Heart of Gold is divided by skin colour (there are three races, one blue, one gold, one albino) and by gender (the indigos follow a rigid matriarchal caste system, with women holding all property and power, while the guldens' clan-oriented, patriarchal social structure glorifies virility and severely represses women). In the indigos' busy, high-tech capital, the races work side by side but live in apartheid-like separation, and racial tension is never far from the surface. Slow progress toward tolerance has been made, with restrictive racial laws abolished and an easing of segregation. But the indigo government's recent campaign of territorial expansion has given rise to a wave of gulden terrorism, and indigo fear and hatred of the gold-skinned people is once more rising to fever pitch.

In this climate of social and political unrest, Nolan Adelpho, a high-caste indigo man whose mother has reluctantly allowed him to follow his talent for biology into a career as a researcher, works with a race- and gender-mixed group of scientists to find cures to the various diseases that afflict the races. It's a job that has brought him face-to-face with his prejudices and preconceptions, and caused him to question his own inevitable future of marriage and child-rearing. Meanwhile Kitrini Candachi, daughter of a pioneering indigo anthropologist who flouted convention to live and study among the gulden, schemes for ways to see her gulden lover, who has been imprisoned for acts of terrorism. Kitrini knows more about the gulden than any indigo living, and passionately detests her own people for their prejudice.

Then Nolan accidentally discovers a secret, something so appalling it makes gulden terrorism look trivial, and he and Kitrini are thrown together in a desperate attempt to avert an impending disaster. The resulting odyssey tests both of them to the limit, challenging all their social and racial biases and working changes so profound that neither will ever be able to return to the life they lived before.

Like all Shinn's novels, Heart of Gold is smoothly written, with an easy story flow that carries the reader effortlessly along. Shinn has a talent for creating vivid, sympathetic characters; she brings not just Nolan and Kitrini, but her large cast of secondary characters -- all of whom represent very different outlooks and agendas -- strongly to life.

While the world building isn't always as deep as it could be (some elements, such as the third race of albinos, are present without adequate explanation, and though the indigos' culture is fascinatingly fully-realized, the guldens', with its puzzling combination of high-tech industry and archaic social customs, is less so), it's consistently interesting. Shinn's treatment of her theme of bigotry is nuanced and intelligent, from the relatively mild repression of indigo males within their matriarchal society, to the guldens' often brutal treatment of their females, to the profound racial and class prejudices deeply woven into the fabric of both societies. One of the book's strengths is that Shinn doesn't pick sides, portraying the assets and weaknesses of each culture in equal measure, and illustrating that even repugnant customs can have social utility.

Elements of category romance are always strongly present in Shinn's novels, and Heart of Gold is no exception. Nolan and Kitrini don't really encounter each other until a bit over halfway through the book, but the experiences and realizations they undergo beforehand are essentially setup to make it possible for these two very different people to fall in love. Appealing as this romantic theme is, it does create some problems for the story. To bring the two together, and to keep them together initially, Shinn must make some big leaps of emotional logic. While it's believable that Kitrini and Nolan would fall in love, the situation in which they do so is never quite credible, and this stands out as a weakness in this otherwise well-imagined book.

Quibbles aside, I can recommend Heart of Gold as a thoroughly entertaining reading experience -- another worthy outing for this skillful author.

Copyright © 2000 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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