Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Last Circle by Gretchen Blickensderfer

Join us this Friday for an in-depth interview with Gretchen herself!

Last summer we saw something new hit the shelves in terms of dystopian fiction, a novel about the rise of a Christian theocratic state, and the persecution of alternate faiths and sexualities. While Christian Nation was an interesting read, however, it was also very dry, very black-and-white in its heroes and villains, and surprisingly misogynistic in its persecution of gay men over all others (including militant terrorists).

With The Last Circle, Gretchen Blickensderfer approaches a similar decline in the American dream, but does so with greater balance and personality. Hers is a very human drama. There are no clear black-and-white distinctions here, no perfect heroes or villains, and no hatred of one 'abomination' above all others. In fact, while faith and politics play a significant role in the transition to a Christian theocratic state, it's individual relationships that drive the central conflicts.

The story itself is structured somewhat oddly, with a contemporary first-person interview framing a more traditional third-person narrative, but it works - especially once the true identity of Gwen is revealed. It's this framing that really brings the story home, providing a sympathetic viewpoint for the reader. As I said, the other characters are not perfect, and even the persecuted heroes have traits that make you want to just reach through the page and shake some sense into them, so Gwen is important as a sort of emotional anchor. Every time we begin to find ourselves frustrated with Laura and her coven, Gwen's story reminds of just how high the stakes are, and precisely why we have to rise about petty personal conflicts.

As for Laura, she's an interesting choice for a protagonist. An emotionally distant young woman with some serious relationship issues, she takes solace and comfort in her role as coven leader. That responsibility begins to wear on her, however, once the persecution starts, and her inability to reconcile her friendships with her sense of a larger purpose causes significant tensions. It is her stubborn insistence on illegally publishing an article critical of President Palmer's reforms that puts them all at risk, and her perseverance in holding an equally illegal pagan ritual (as a protest) that puts them on the run.

Personally opposing her is a woman by the name of Shelby, once a simple, if dangerously obsessive, church group leader with relationship issues of her own. Although she has no ambitions to rise above her station in life, a series of circumstances (including several broken relationships) put her side-by-side with President Palmer as his Director of the Bureau of Religious Protection. She is a dangerous woman, full of ideas and passions, but short on reason. As her obsession grows, fed by the evangelical propaganda of her husband, Shelby makes the final confrontation with Laura and her coven a personal one, despite the fact that the world is watching, and the stakes are far higher than she's possible of comprehending.

Not surprising for a story that's primarily about relationships, this is also a story that turns on a number of betrayals - spiritual, emotional, and physical. Many of them are subtle, with larger implications revealed later on, but a few of them are quite staggering. To say much more would be to spoil their power, but it all comes back to the idea that nobody is perfect, and that what should be black-and-white is really just shades of grey. It makes for an uncomfortable read at times, but reading about such a fundamental betrayal of the American dream should be uncomfortable.

While I thought the story could use a little more description - I sometimes found it hard to visualize who people were or what was happening - that's really my only complaint. I thought it was imaginative and well thought out, with the rise of the Christian theocratic state entirely reasonably and (sadly) almost logical. There's a lovely appreciation for history here as well, with several significant events recreated or echoed in the struggle of Laura and her coven. I'm still not sure how I feel about the climax - I appreciate it, but don't necessarily like it - but, overall, The Last Circle is absolutely worth reading for anybody with an interest in the struggle for equality and acceptance.

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