Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow has become one of my favorite books. It deals with some of my favorite subjects—religion, anachronism, first contact—in a wonderful story. And if the characters make mistakes that only someone who'd never seen an episode of Star Trek would make, well, I can suspend disbelief a little bit. It's a stretch—I mean, have you never taken an anthropology class? If not, why are you on a first contact mission?—but since this is really my single critique of the book (well, that and how did the Jesuits jump to such crazy conclusions? But really, just those two), I think that speaks to how well-written, well-thought-out, and well-researched it is.
The sequel, Children of God, is wonderful as well. It's more about redemption and social evolution, and how time and experiences change us into people even we don't know. The end is a bit facile, but it's so good.
So I hope you can imagine how excited I was to hear that Russell was releasing a novel about the life of Doc Holliday, famous gunslinger and friend to the Earp brothers, hero of the OK Corral. I've been reading Doc for weeks now and barely made a dent in it, which makes me very sad.
It's actually not that it's not enjoyable. It's well written, well researched, and easy to follow. But it's not a very good novel. It's actually a really good nonfiction book--a very readable biography. Most of what happens is told rather than shown, and the parts that are shown are written in a style that makes it very clear that she's drawing from contemporary accounts, letters, and recorded recollections.
There are also dramatized moments--a private conversation between Doc and his girl Kate, a description of an average day at the poker tables. They are few and far between, and read like nonfiction. I think these are the moments that forced the author and publishers to label this a novel. I think that's a crying shame, because it doesn't work as a novel.
All characterization is done from the outside, and it's done through the unskilled eyes of contemporaries, not through the careful application of relevant details that a novelist can envision but a researcher can't confirm. We get almost no inner lives of the characters, but a lot of expository back story--including very thorough back stories what appear to be very minor characters. This adds texture, but telling about the life of Wyatt Earp's friend Johnnie through the point of view of a train trip taken by his childhood pastor to perform a funeral is perhaps overkill. Especially when you then get into the personal background of Johnnie's childhood pastor, just because (as often happens in nonfiction) that information is there.
Anyway, I'll finish it. And I'll know a lot more. But I will not have as clear a picture or sympathetic a portrait of Doc Holliday as I did after I watched Val Kilmer's wheezing, drawling, melodramatic performance in the very enjoyable movie, Tombstone.