Katie Waitman,
The Merro Tree
((Del Rey, 1997)

Katie Waitman's impressive debut novel, The Merro Tree, transcends genre with a compelling and heartfelt tale.

Survivor of an abusive childhood, Mikk, of the planet Vyzania, becomes apprentice to master performance artist Huud Maroc who recognizes the potential within the boy's splintered psyche. Under Master Huud's care, and guidance, Mikk becomes one of the finest performance artists of all time, mastering and internalizing the art forms of an intergalactic array of cultures. Since Vyzanians age eight years for every Terran century, Mikk has generations of time over which to hone his craft.

The culmination of his training comes when he becomes a master performance artist in his own right, and Mikk takes the galaxy by storm. Included in his repertoire is the Somalite songdance, a meditative form of song combined with dance which is an integral part of the Somalite culture but which cannot be taught, and few outworlders can begin to grasp it. But when a tragedy of global proportions hits the Somalites, Mikk -- and only Mikk -- is forbidden to perform the songdance. Mikk defies the ban, and finds himself arrested and facing a tribune of the Council, the galactic body which governs performing arts, in a struggle for his very life -- for the penalty for defying the ban is death.

Waitman intersperses the linear narrative of Mikk's life with "entr'actes" describing his imprisonment and the trial; at the end, the entr'actes mesh with the narrative flow. The jumps forward to Mikk's current situation heighten the suspense and build tension in both directions; both to return to the story of Mikk's life and to find out what happens at the trial. The pace is rapid, but Waitman does not sacrifice style for speed; the language is rich and expressive, with delicious fillips of humor throughout.

While Mikk is a humanoid, many of the characters are from an imaginative array of species. Mikk's dearest heart-friend, Thisizz, is a Droos, a race of sentient snakes, possessed of a beautiful singing voice and a deep, abiding love for Mikk. Maya, his costumer, is a fierce and feisty little Werevan cephalopod who takes no nonsense from anyone. Hom, one of Master Huud's early apprentices, is a Longchild, and will live a long time without really growing up. The Kekoi, on whose planet Mikk is imprisoned, are a race of dogheaded bipeds. These are only a few of the fascinating species conjured from Waitman's fertile imagination.

At the heart of the book is Mikk, however, who, in spite of his renown, is in many ways still the lonely awkward child suffering his mother's abuse. He is like the merro tree of his native planet, Vyzania, which should not have survived originally. Not only did it endure, but it became a thing of great beauty and holiness.

Technically,The Merro Tree is science fiction, but the story comes first and extends beyond the labels. With unforgettable characters and a satisfying narrative that stays with you long after the covers are closed, The Merro Tree is sure to appeal to any reader who happens to have a heart.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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