Kathleen O’Neal is probably better known these days as Kathleen O’Neal Gear; particularly in combination with her husband Michael, she is a prolific author, with at least 34 novels published since her debut novel, Abyss of Light, appeared in 1990. I am personally unfamiliar with the main body of her work but it appears for the most part to be an exploration of prehistorical North America, drawing on her training as an archaeologist. Have not read those books, don’t have an opinion on them.
I have now read her Powers of Light Trilogy (Abyss of Light, Treasure of Light, and Redemption of Light) so I do have an opinion on that. Unfortunately, it’s not a positive opinion.
The trilogy is set in an era long after humans were forcibly removed from Earth to serve cruel alien masters. Now scattered on a myriad of worlds throughout the Milky Way, most humans accept being ruled over by doctrinaire alien Magistrates as natural, tolerable and right. Those who do not conform as seen as misguided at best and dangerous enemies of the State at worst.
The worst enemies of the State are the Gamants, stubborn adherents of an ancient Abrahamic faith who unreasonably refuse to have their culture and religion swept away to better enable them to be useful cogs in Galactic civilization.
Rather implausibly, the Gamants, who number only about a million or so compared to the trillions the Magistrates can muster, have managed to win concessions from a culture that really does not come across as inclined to make concessions. Ever since then, the Magistrates and their loyal minions have worked tirelessly to undermine Gamant independence and to find excuses to justify violent episodes of mass murder to bring the Gamants back under control. They are opposed in this primarily by Underground fleet led by Jeremiel Baruch, whose lack of resources is compensated for by his cunning and the fact the author is on his side.
The Gamants do have an excuse for their uncooperative tendencies, which is that they literally have a direct line to their god, although their phone service could be more reliable. Using devices called the Mea Shearim, a select few can talk to what are clearly entities far more powerful than mere humans.
The books begin during a period of religious strife on the planet Horeb, where would-be “Mashiah” Adom has introduced a new twist on an old religion, casting the traditional supreme god Epagael as a force of evil to be vanquished by Milcom, who Adom is certain is not evil at all.
This seems like a good time to mention that just as Epagael seems awfully similar to the Abrahamic supreme deity so many follow in various forms, so his antagonist, supernatural master of deceit Aktariel, seems quite familiar. So do the two opposed interpretations of Epagael’s supposed benevolence.
While Adom himself is not willfully cruel, his subordinates are milking the situation for all the power they can grab and if this means having to torture and murder everyone who sticks to the old religion, they’re perfectly okay with that. In fact, they are positively gleeful about the opportunity to be sadistically spiteful.
Adom’s rise and the mundane struggle between the Galactics and the Underground sets in motion the plot. While the Magistrates play whack-a-mole using such tools as destructive brain-scans and casual planetary genocide, a far more important struggle is being played out between those loyal to Epagael and Aktariel; one particular victim of Adom’s religion is carefully guided towards a position to decide the fate of her universe and perhaps others.
This divides handily into the kind of material I read and review every day and theological stuff I am probably not qualified to discuss and yet will anyway. Second category first:
I suspect someone raised in a culture steeped in the mystical traditions of the various Abrahamic religions would have found the endless discussions of Good and Evil and how an all powerful deity who was not overtly malevolent could have created a world so full of pain interesting. My personal theological lineage is Presbyterian > Unitarian > nothing > nothing, which means my role in discussions like these is providing snarky commentary from the side-lines. Since I cannot take seriously the basic premise of the argument – that the universe was created by some kind of supreme being – a very large part of the plot has no automatic resonance for me.
While I am aware some of Epagael’s lines are based pretty closely on existing religious documents, the plot would have worked better for me had Epagael and his angelic minions ever presented a stronger case for their side than they did. It didn’t help that Epagael comes across as defensive and inarticulate and his minions as smug and overbearing. We see Aktariel orchestrating some pretty terrible events in order to make his Grand Plan work out so it should have been easy for Team Epagael to at least come off more sympathetic than the father of lies, but somehow they didn’t. I think I was supposed to see this as a struggle between light and dark where who was which is unclear but in theory resolvable. What I actually read was something where both of the powerful entities were clearly monstrous, neither one worthy of human trust or loyalty.
I am probably not the intended audience for this. I suspect to someone of the right background this would be irresistible mind-candy, the way any book where orbital mechanics are properly accounted for is for me.
That alone would not necessarily be fatal to enjoyment of the series. After all, I remember enjoying Blish’s After Such Knowledge books, Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and in austere way, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, all of which have large swaths of implausible world-building and opaque moral quandaries I had no trouble suspending my disbelief for. The real problem with this trilogy is the writing, which is terrible in pretty much every way it could be terrible. The world-building is vague at best; I was reminded of a lesser Star Wars novel or perhaps one of the more flawed abominations excreted by Kevin J. Anderson or his lesser partner in literary abomination, Brian Herbert. The various villains are cartoonish mustache-twirling caricatures and their successes are unbelievable; the fact that the good guys don’t seem to have more depth or plausibility than the bad guys did not compensate in my eyes.
One aspect that really eliminated any possibility that I could enjoy this as good dumb fun is that even for a poorly written space opera this was extraordinarily rapey, with large dollops of torture and slow death for the victims tossed in for good measure. I understand rape is an easy marker for the bad guys and a good way to pad out what otherwise have been a single volume series but I did not care for it.
Many of the atrocities committed in the trilogy are of varieties within historical norms (although the scales are sometimes larger) so it says something that the endless mass murders, willful cultural genocides, deliberate area bombardments of civilians, internecine religious conflicts and so on came across as unbelievable.
I confess to some curiosity about how this trilogy fits into the transformation of DAW as it was under Donald Wollheim and as DAW became under Elizabeth R. Wollheim and Sheila E. Gilbert. Transitioning from one editorial regime to a new one can be tricky and it is an issue every imprint that outlasts its founder has to wrestle with and I think on the whole DAW handled it well. Elizabeth Wollheim became Editor-in-Chief in 1986 but when I look at Steven H. Silver’s index of DAW books it looks to me that while the two grand eras in DAW’s history are distinct, the border itself is very fuzzy. This book seems atypically dire for DAW Books in either period and perhaps it slipped through thanks to the transition.
Normally I would include links to facilitate readers buying the books I review but reading these books made me too sad to look for a convenient source. They should be available on Amazon.
I will finish with a comment from the person who sponsored this review:
When and how does one become a connoisseur? Twenty-three years ago, when I picked this trilogy up from a shelf in the B. Dalton bookstore in the White Plains Galleria Mall, I was not a connoisseur. I’d read a couple novels by W. Michael Gear, Kathleen O’Neal Gear’s husband, and these were shelved nearby, and I was fifteen, blowing my snack budget on penny-dreadfuls, and behold!
I read these novels and did not enjoy them immensely. They were ponderous, overwrought things, ambitiously conceived but ham-handedly executed.
Kathleen Gear has remained active and has written forty books since, solo and in collaboration with her husband.
Ten years later, I sold the trilogy (along with several hundred other penny dreadfuls) to the paperback exchange in Ithaca. Fourteen years later, they are still there.