- Zumaya Publications, 2004
There are people who claim that male authors cannot write a woman's point of view, or a woman a man's. I've read far too many books where the author has managed to prove the skeptics wrong. I don't know why the skeptics continue to insist that there's something wrong with this literary transvestitism. But that's a subject for a different discussion.
Ken Rand's Phoenix is written entirely from a female point of view. There are two main characters. Anna Devlin, whose story of betrayal, survival, and atonement is the story's center, and Lisan, whose interviews with Anna provide the frame.
Neither Lisan nor Anna are ordinary women. In a sense writing women like these isn't all that challenging for a man. Lisan, after all, is just a youngster, with few if any of the life experiences that a woman would have. Anna spends only a few pages as an ordinary woman before her life is changed forever, but Rand makes every page convincing. (Of course, that's a man talking. Perhaps a woman's judgement on this point would be different.)
Rand's description of Anna's survival is a bit reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe, but the similarities are slight. Anna's survival is a matter of luck, as she blindly stumbles into a sapplant with enough force to break some branches off, and the dripping sap is what essentially saves her life.
But the story of survival isn't so much that of her body, but of her mind, as it chronicles Anna's struggle to retain, and often regain, her sanity. In fact, as the story continues, Anna's physical body becomes strong and healthy, in spite of having lost everything on which her physical security used to depend, and in spite of her horrible injuries. Meanwhile her mind is crippled. Not until Anna returns to the people who betrayed her, and contrives to forge atonement with them, does her mind begin to heal. And that doesn't happen until all those who betrayed her are either dead or dying, again, by a bit of luck.
The healing is completed as she tells her story to Lisan. By then Anna's body is failing, probably dying from cancer. There is a glimpse of hope as Lisan and Anna notice that a new starship has arrived, but Anna dies before the travelers can rescue her and the other survivors. These kinds of stories don't need happy endings, and, in a way, this was the happiest ending this story could have.
The fact that the Familia are strongly reminiscent of fanatical Muslims doesn't really cause problems. The Familia are everywhere, and their betrayal is really as common as dirt. And it isn't as if the Familia hadn't been betrayed in the first place. On Phoenix, as in the present, there is plenty of blame to go around.
I found the story strong and moving. The characters were people with whom I could empathize. Rand's subject could easily have tempted him into hyperbolic excesses, but he carefully avoids the nasty missteps he might have made. His prose is economical, but not too dry. And, in the end, the story made me think.
I was, quite frankly, very disappointed to find that Ken Rand hadn't been able to sell this story in a bigger market. Tor (to pick one example) has certainly sold many much weaker books this year in hard cover.