Patricia Anthony,
God's Fires
(Ace, 1977; 1998)

It doesn't take long to figure out what's going on in God's Fires. Even the dimmest bulb in the chandelier ought to have a pretty clear idea by page 2 if the names Scully and Mulder are familiar to them, or if they've ever heard of Roswell, New Mexico. Alien abductions have become quite popular in fiction, whether in book form or packaged in some cliche-riddled spawn from Hollywood. Of course, Patricia Anthony isn't your average writer, and God's Fires is not your average alien abduction novel.

For never before have aliens faced the Inquisition.

Father Inquisitor Manoel Pessoa arrives in the small Portuguese village of Quintas and is immediately confronted by strange confessions of abductions and fornication with angels, of pregnant virgins and lights in the sky. Pessoa, a man of tentative faith and even less respect for his priestly vows, attempts to quell the wild talk lest more zealous prosecutors of heresy take interest. To this point, Anthony plays coy with her setup, using writer's sleight-of-hand to offer teasing glimpses of the supposed "angels," and the book plods deliberately along. But then the aliens pull a Roswell, plowing their silver acorn of a space ship into the side of a mountain, and all bets are off.

Portugal's idiot King Afonso sees the fiery crash, takes it as a sign from God and mounts a quest after the falling star from Heaven. Inquisitor-General Gomes hears of the king's quest, mysterious grey "angels" and other heresies, prompting him to travel to Quintas to open a full inquiry of his own. Pessoa is caught in the middle, desperate to protect villagers -- ignorant of their peril -- who defy his protection; baffled by the strange, silent, grey "angels" within whose eyes some see paradise and others see damnation; and Inquisitor-General Gomes, who's hell-bent to burn the entire heretical village at the stake and none too discreet about his desire to consign the Jesuit-trained Pessoa to the flames as well.

As she has in previous books -- Brother Termite, Cold Allies and Happy Policeman -- Anthony uses her aliens as a catalyst, a mirror held up to the provide greater insight into the human condition. The aliens don't explain themselves -- they don't have to, and if they did, it wouldn't matter. From Pessoa to Gomes to Afonso, everyone sees the aliens as they want to, and no amount of argument or evidence affects those beliefs in the slightest. The aliens remain enigmas to the end, their thoughts and motivations unknown and unknowable. The humans remain enigmas as well, despite the fact that their thoughts and motivations are naked and exposed.

With subject matter as serious as the Inquisition, there's a danger of portraying events as black-and-white melodrama. Fortunately, Anthony avoids this, without slighting the brutality and horror the Inquisition fostered. Pessoa and the other protagonists are not sainted, aren't even necessarily nice. Gomes and his ilk aren't baseless caricatures of evil -- Gomes truly believes the burnings work to save the souls of the condemned -- even though they bring untold suffering to Quintas.

Religious fiction is a tricky business, usually falling into the categories of satire or inspirational. Religious science fiction is an even rarer bird, given the genre's tendency to embrace atheism. Anthony manages to carve out a niche all her own with God's Fires. Rather than the irreverent lampoon of James Morrow's Towing Jehovah or Only Begotten Daughter, Anthony's God's Fires owes more to Poul Anderson's High Crusade and A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller Jr., although it's more earthy and immediate than either of those two titles, as firmly grounded in reality as any work of speculative fiction can be.

Unfortunately, terrible cover art and a thoroughly uncomprehending marketing department conspired to undercut the promotion of God's Fires. Admittedly, this isn't the most easily classified of books, but it's the type of challenging, thought-provoking fiction that's sadly lacking on the bookshelves these days. Ace has recently dropped Anthony all together, and more's the pity. Hopefully another publisher will pick her up, for hers is a voice that should not be silenced, and God's Fires a book that should be hunted down before it disappears entirely from bookstore shelves.

review by
Jayme Lynn Blaschke

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