Reviewed date: 2017 Oct 26
Guardian is readable, exciting, a page-turner, and a disappointment. I've never found a book so engrossing and yet so disappointing.
I was expecting science fiction. What I got was a meticulously researched, thoroughly entertaining piece of historical fiction. Rosa Coleman, orphan of the Civil War, marries a wealthy Philadelphia businessman. He abuses her. She perseveres until he abuses their son Daniel, at which point she takes Daniel and runs away. The bulk of the story is a travelogue, with all sorts of genuinely interesting bits of period information. But we know that this is all just the precursor to a science fiction-y revelation that Rosa hints is coming later in the story.
First they head to Dodge City, where Rosa teaches school for four years until her husband sends a Pinkerton agent to arrest her and retrieve Daniel. Daniel conks the Pinkerton on the head, and he and Rosa flee to Alaska. Daniel wants to make his fortune seeking gold in the Yukon, and Rosa figures Alaska is remote enough to be safely hidden. Cue more travel tales, just as wonderful as before.
On the way to Skagway, Alaska, Rosa falls in love with a fellow prospector, Doc Coleman. Just when I thought the science fiction would never show up, suddenly it does. Doc and Daniel are killed in a senseless act of violence. Rosa is overcome with grief and is about to kill herself when a raven shows up, speaks to her, transforms into a man, and takes her on a magical whirlwind tour of the universe. He shows her alien planets, strange life forms, a future New York City charred and blackened by a-bombs, and even a mysterious hall of afterlife where the bodies of all the dead who have ever lived, anywhere in the universe, are preserved in perfect stasis.
Then the raven returns her to Alaska, but a different Alaska. It's six months earlier, and some minor details have changed. Rosa marries Doc and they forget Alaska, pool their money, and buy a farm in the Midwest. They live a happy, normal life. Daniel is killed in World War I, which I guess was supposed to be a surprise, because for the entire book Rosa has been hinting that her son did something to save the world from nuclear armageddon.
Ha. It was her second son, the one with Doc. He never cared much for farming, preferred science. Worked on the Manhattan Project, found a way to squeeze another bomb--Baby Boy--out of the uranium, and convinced Truman to drop it over Tokyo Bay as a warning shot. Japan surrendered, and Rosa figures millions of lives were saved by preventing the land invasion of Japan. Well, it's sort of close to our version of history.
And that's it.
Oh, and Rosa writes science fiction stories to support the family, because farming isn't lucrative, and she gets to go to New York and meet Hugo Gernsback.
Guardian is either a genuinely interesting piece of historical fiction marred by a bizarre mystical experience, or a bizarre science fiction short story with an interminable novel's worth of setup and introduction. It just doesn't fit together.