The Sugar Festival

I picked up Paul Park’s The Sugar Festival back when I went to Clarion, but never read it (he was one of our instructors that year – I read The Gospel of Corax instead, which I enjoyed). Mainly, I didn’t read it because the first few pages… few, man, at least 25 or so, were really tough to get into.

The primary POV, the one that’s supposed to slide you into the story, is that of an antinomial, one of a “race” of religious heretics who broke away from the mainstream many seasons ago. The viewpoint is utterly alien. These people have renounced love, emotions, thought, anything but selfish present, the here and now. They are a proud, strong people. So proud and strong that many would rather die than accept help from others. Accepting help from others, they believe, would make them slaves. Questioning the past, the future, all these things would make them slaves to thought, to reason. Only the present moment, the self, is real.

There’s a telling line when a city woman says to one of the antinomials, “Stop it, you’re hurting her,” and he says, “I can’t feel it.”

If he can’t feel it, how could it exist? How could it matter?

You can sort of see up front why this is a troublesome way to start a novel. It’s like Ayn Rand jacked up on crack and set on fire.

But there was something in the story this time around that peaked my interest, something I was too young and impatient to catch the first time. And that’s the complexity and depth of the world, and the way the seasons work, and how the entire story, its characters, its events, are built beautifully around that.

Because seasons here are not three or four or six months long. They aren’t even the 10-15 year span you see in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. No, these seasons are a generation long. Someone born at the end of the winter may – may – live long enough to see the beginning of summer. Winter is long and brutal, and spring is the starving time, the long, hollow season when you wait for the rain, for the sugar rain, the heavy, sugary, gasoline smelling rain that falls from the sky and brings life back to the world.

The depth to this world is just astounding. The world is ruled all winter and spring long by a harsh, restrictive religion, by priests and a ruling class family of “Starbridges” who call the rain the semen of their god-prophet. The bizarre seasons have shaped the religion, the stratification, the entire society, to a lovely, intricate level that left my head spinning.

Because not many writers will do this. Not many writers will say, “OK, my world does X. How different would things REALLY be if life were like X?”

Park does that here. He explores this world in depth and detail. Every spring, the city burns. Every summer, a new religion of loving kindness and joyous fertility springs up, and the rigid, angry, penile cult of the current set of priests goes dormant. It happens every turn of the seasons, for the 16 seasons of the recorded calendar. Not that anybody alive has ever really *seen* what it’s like before. They just have the histories, the stories, the myths. Myths of their own seasons, a summer they have never seen. An autumn they will never see.

There are nods to the idea that these folks are the descendents of some space travelers – probably criminals – abandoned or exiled to this world, so long ago that nobody knows the real story, just the myths. But not cheesy myths. For me, that’s the key. It’s not like, “And they say he came down in his god-ship and took out his com-pu-ter and announced that he had claimed this land for Earth. And would call it after that world.” You don’t get it shoved in your face. You get the people’s understanding of it.

The ruling family has the name Starbridge. The Starbridges are “different.” Literally, there blood looks different?? There are people with tails, and most folks seem to have a lot of body hair, and at one point there’s this throw away line where he’s like, “The girl in the photo only had ten fingers.” These little teasing places in the narrative where you’re like “WTF???? SRSLY???”

I love that stuff.

It’s a good thing the world building was amazing, tho. Watching the roll of the seasons, and the predictable (to that society) roll of its politics to match (“He believed in the equality of women, but it was still a little early in the season for that”) is a total trip. And, again, a good thing.

A good thing because I had some of the same issues with this one as I had with A Princess of Roumania, in that is was terribly difficult to like any of the people (and that opening, I think, may have cost a lot of readers who weren’t willing to get past it). Unlike Princess, however, I saw a lot of that unlikability as justified. In this kind of inexplicably cruel, harsh, constrained, stratified world, whaat kind of people would you end up with? Who would they be? Who would survive, season after season, when every spring 80% of the people starve and the cities burn down?

Not great folks, let me tell you.

I think it was that realization that made me love these books, because Park did that thing that I always accuse so many writers (including me) of not doing. He wasn’t lazy. He took a world and ran with it. There wasn’t a lot of shorthand garbage. There wasn’t one monolithic religion. The world wasn’t static. The characters lived and breathed and grew out of their world. They weren’t transplants from the MTV music awards or some Dragonlance novel. They belonged there. They were shaped there, utterly and completely.

I loved this book. And it’s generally very difficult for me to say that about books full of people I don’t particularly like. Yet, to see a world fully realized and built and set into motion like that, man…

Talk about sense of wonder.

And yes, the third and last book is on my wishlist.

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