Book Review: Parable of the Talents (Earthseed #2) by Octavia E. Butler

PARABLE OF THE TALENTS (Earthseed #2) by Octavia E. Butler
First published in November 2001

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Parable of the Talents is the second and final book in Butler’s Earthseed Trilogy, published eight years after Parable of the Sower. The story picks up five years after Sower, in the year 2032. Here, the protagonist Lauren has successfully founded a small community called Acorn, loosely organized around the religion of Earthseed. While their community is by no means a wealthy one, it’s still something of a micro-utopia: Each person and family has just enough to meet their basic needs; every individual is treated with respect and dignity, regardless of age, gender or race; and there is no crime or violence amongst the members. The community also makes time for creating and enjoying art, music, and religious rituals, despite the hard labor they do to ensure their survival.

But Lauren, being cautious and pragmatic, still keeps an eye on events happening outside of Acorn. She is particularly concerned about the rising popularity of Sen. Andrew Steele Jarrett, a white Christian presidential candidate who wants to “make America great again”. While he intends to do this by upholding Christianity and persecuting other religious groups, his resemblance to modern populist leaders is uncanny:

Andrew Steele Jarrett was able to scare, divide, and bully people, first into electing him as President, then into letting him fix the country for them. He didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do. He was capable of much greater fascism. So were his most avid followers.

True enough, Lauren’s fears materialize when an extremist group of his followers forcibly break into their community, separate the adults from the children, and make slaves of the adults, all in the name of “re-educating” their “cult”. For the rest of the book, we follow the Earthseed community as they struggle to break free from their captors, find their children, and establish new Earthseed communities.

I found Parable of the Talents much more difficult to read than Parable of the Sower. For one, Butler’s descriptions of the violence, rape, and humiliation that came with slavery was brutal to read about, and for another, the resemblance of their political situation to the present is so close it’s downright scary, so if you’ve been reading to take your mind off the mess of 2020, then this definitely isn’t the book to read!

On the other hand, the critique of religion that Butler hinted in Sower is becomes much more pointed in Talents. She makes it clear through the hypocritical actions of Jarrett’s fanatic followers that in its extremist form, Christianity can breed hatred and oppression. Interestingly, Butler also attempts to critique Lauren and Earthseed through the perspective of Lauren’s daughter, Asha, whose commentary prefaces a number of her mother’s journal entries. In the Prologue, Asha writes:

They’ll make a God of her.

I think that would please her, if she could know about it. In spite of all her protests and denials, she’s always needed devoted, obedient followers—disciples—who would listen to her and believe everything she told them. And she needed large events to manipulate. All gods seemed to need these things.

Unfortunately, this line of critique against all religion in general is never fully fleshed out in the novel. Plus, with her searing critique of religion in Talents, Butler seems to imply that religion is the only breeding ground for oppression, such as patriarchy and racism. While this is true in some cases, I also think that these systems of oppression have a way of taking root outside of religious contexts, which is not something that Talents addresses.

Overall, while I found Butler’s Parable of the Talents an engaging read, I felt like it fell short of its promise. I did find myself intrigued by Butler’s thought experiment, though (“What if we can create a more inclusive religion with an impersonal God?”), and I’d still be interested in reading more of her works in the future. I’ve been hearing great things about Kindred, so I might pick that one up next.

Once again, this was also a buddy read with Melanie @ Grab the Lapels. I enjoyed discussing this with you, Melanie! You can read her review of Talents here.

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from August 9-15, 2020

Book Review: Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1) by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the SowerPARABLE OF THE SOWER (Earthseed #1) by Octavia E. Butler
First published in October 1993
This edition published on November 8, 2016 by Seven Stories Press

My Rating: ★★★★☆

TW: Graphic depictions of violence, rape, slavery, mentions of cannibalism, romance with a large age gap

I’ve been hearing about Butler’s works for awhile, so I was finally glad to be able to buddy-read her Earthseed duology with Melanie @ Grab the Lapels. (Melanie’s reviews will also out this week, so head over to her blog to check them out!) One thing that struck us both about the Earthseed series was how 2020 it feels despite being published nearly two to three decades ago. While there’s no pandemic in the series, there is a general sense of anarchy, chaos, and suspicion that pervades the atmosphere of these two works, so that reading it feels eerily similar to watching the news headlines today.

The first book in the series, Parable of the Sower (1993), is set between the years 2024-2027. We follow the perspective of the 15-year-old protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina as she tells us her story in the form of journal entries. In the first half of the book, we watch Lauren and her family struggle to survive within their small walled community in L.A. In her world, basic necessities like water and food have become scarce; technology and education are luxuries that only the very rich can afford; crime is rampant; and the police cannot be trusted to enforce law and order. Every family is left to fend for themselves.

Perhaps a result of her environment, Lauren is practical and tough-skinned from a young age. While she does have a special condition called hyperempathy, which allows her to feel the pain and pleasure of other people, her condition ironically makes her more suspicious and wary rather than empathetic and trusting of others. She explains this is because sharers (those with hyperempathy) are typically looked down upon and exploited, so she does her best to hide her condition.

Just when things seem terrible enough, the story takes a turn for the worse towards the second half of the book: Drug addicts who get a sexual high from watching fire (yes, really) storm into Lauren’s community and raze it to the ground. During the panicked flight from the fire, Lauren is separated from her stepmother and her brothers, and she is forced to fend for herself. However, she journeys to find a safer community, she meets people along the way that she comes to trust and befriend. They eventually form their own community around Earthseed, the religion that Lauren creates (more on this later).

I’ll be honest here: I badly wanted to love this duology, especially since I admire and respect Butler’s work as a writer and activist. However, after finishing this book, I realized that I appreciated what Butler tried to attempt with this novel more than its execution.

I’ll start with what I liked about it. First, I appreciated Butler’s natural incorporation of BIPOC characters in the story without anyone feeling like the “token” minority. This was a rather eye-opening experience for me, since it revealed to me that I’m used to assuming a character is white unless otherwise stated. It was refreshing to finally be able to assume otherwise.

I also agreed with how Butler explored the themes of community, inclusivity, and human resilience. Butler’s imagined future is very much like our present in that misogyny and racism still exist, but in the community that Lauren creates, she clearly condemns those. Instead, she urges everyone to live as equals and to help each other according to their capacities. Butler’s vision of what an inclusive community can look like is also a vision I share.

However, Butler also imagines religion as necessary to hold such a community together, and this is where I diverge with her. As I’ve mentioned, Lauren creates the religion of Earthseed from scratch, initially done as a reaction to her father’s Baptist teachings, but eventually to capture what she thinks is “the truth” about the divine. Here are verses that form the backbone of Earthseed:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Earthseed views God as neither male nor female—in fact, God is not human. To Lauren, God is the impersonal force of change that shapes circumstances and that can also be wielded to shape circumstances.

I can appreciate this as a critique of monotheistic religions, but I don’t believe that inclusive and supportive communities require a religion as a foundation. Once you accept something as irrevocably true, as Lauren does with her idea of “God is Change”, this can easily ossify into dogma, at which point it risks becoming just like the religions it was founded to critique in the first place.

Aside from that, I also had some minor issues with the world-building. For one, the mechanics of Lauren’s hyperempathy is never fully explained. Lauren can only feel physical pain and sexual pleasure, but not emotions like sadness, fear, or confusion. While we were talking, Melanie mentioned how much more interesting the story would have been had Butler explored this hyperempathy more fully, but as it is in Sower, it just felt like something tacked onto an otherwise near-invulnerable protagonist.

Finally, the plotting also seemed haphazard to me. Since the story is told through a series of journal entries, Lauren often prefaces each entry by explaining the main event before letting us know the lead-up to it, which really killed the suspense for me. There were also a number of coincidences in the novel that seemed like easy solutions to the characters’ problems, but this actually didn’t bother me much—they were all struggling so much already that it was nice to see something good happen to them for once.

In the end, while Parable of the Sower wasn’t as emotionally gut-wrenching as I thought it might be, I still cared deeply for the characters and was content to ‘follow along’ with them on their journey, coincidences and all. And while I wasn’t convinced of the “truth” of Earthseed, I truly admired Butler’s attempt to criticise extremist monotheistic religions and to envision an entirely new belief system that would be more compassionate and inclusive to people from all walks of life. Overall, Parable of the Sower is a gritty, thought-provoking, and ultimately hopeful work about the power of community and human resilience. I recommend it if you’re interested in dystopian fiction, particularly in dystopian fiction that can help us re-envision social justice.


Have you read any of Butler’s works? What did you think of them?

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from June 26 - August 8, 2020

Book Review: Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin

Serpent & Dove
SERPENT & DOVE by Shelby Mahurin (Published by HarperTeen in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Wow, what a ride! This book has EVERYTHING I want in a YA fantasy novel—a richly-imagined world, an enemies-to-lovers romance, a fast-paced plot, strong main characters, and well-drawn side characters—and I stayed up until 2 AM to finish it, despite the fact that I had to be up at 6 AM the next day. I found myself immediately and helplessly sucked into the world, and there was nothing I could do but to succumb to the momentum of the story.

Continue reading “Book Review: Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin”

Book Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Published by Saga Press in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Guys, I am CRUSHED. On paper, I was so sure this was going to be a 500-star read for me. I mean, a sci-fi novella about a pair of star-crossed, time-travelling lesbian assassins?? In epistolary format???? HELL YES.

But after reading it, I just felt… disappointed.

sad

Everything that looked good on paper just fell apart in execution.

Continue reading “Book Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone”

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

Hi everyone! I’m back with another review. A Wizard for Earthsea is regarded as a classic in the YA fantasy genre, and while I don’t read a lot of fantasy anymore, it’s very close to my heart. Fantasy was the genre I read most as a kid, and it’s also the genre I first dipped into after college, when I started reading for pleasure again. Reading A Wizard of Earthsea definitely brought back that nostalgia in the best way.


A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children in 2012; first published 1968)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

This is my first by Le Guin, and I have to say, she does a pretty good job with a familiar but little-used fantasy trope. Here’s the long and short of it: a monstrously talented young wizard (think Chosen One levels) lets the talent gets to his head, tries to one-up his douchey rival at wizard school, backfires big time, and ends up doing damage control for the evil he unleashed.

I love it already. I love storylines where protagonists make a huge mess of things and have to clean up their messes afterwards. It just makes for a whole lot of character growth, and most of the bad decisions are over with quickly. Plus, even as they’re making bad decisions, they’re at least guaranteed to be aware that they’ve made bad decisions, so it saves readers a lot of frustration. (Unlike Harry Potter, who’s frustrating to read as an adult because he’s always charging into life-or-death situations with no plans whatsoever.)

The start was slow-going for me, though, and the characters were difficult to connect with. Le Guin uses a style of writing that’s reminiscent of a folk song or a ballad (minus the line breaks), so we have something that’s closer to Bible stories or The Iliad rather than Game of Thrones. But while I didn’t like it at first – or more accurately, I found it unfamiliar at first, and the unfamiliar always brings some discomfort with it – I found myself warming up to it by Chapter 3 or 4. I spent a few days just reading a paragraph or so at a time, but then suddenly, I found I couldn’t seem to stop reading and just sprinted towards the end in a few hours.

I also loved her world-building and the magic system. I’ve read a few YA/NA fantasy a year or so ago and I’ve gotten used to seeing the kind of magic where people can just suddenly do things out of thin air, with no consequences whatsoever. In Le Guin’s world, magic follows very logical rules, and there are always trade-offs to using – and overusing – magic. I appreciated this since it quickly raised the stakes for the characters and gave their magical decisions a lot more weight.

In conclusion, this was a great read for me, but something that I was slow to warm up to. It’s probably the kind of fantasy that’s best read when you have the time and patience for the world to unfold. I’ll definitely read more Le Guin, though – I have a physical copy of The Left Hand of Darkness, which hopefully I can pick up this year.


How about you? Have you read this book? What are your favorite YA fantasy/sci-fi books? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Find me on Goodreads | Read from January 3-8, 2020