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O Greenest Branch!
By Gael Baudino

Reviewed by Loree Cook-Daniels
Rating: none given

Gael is playing with us! Big time!

Some of the themes of her book are quite, quite serious. Both the Righteous States of America and the three African kingdoms of Kaprisha, Kalash, and Khyr are extremely patriarchal, rigid, homophobic, religious nation-states. How does this religiosity affect each nation's men, who seem to have more than even a Kinsey's share of homosexual interest? How did the kingdoms' religion supplant an earlier, matriarchal religion; and how is it used now to deal with a severely class-stratified society coping with a 300-year-old drought? Potentially interesting issues, yes?

Unfortunately, Ms. Baudino's primary interest is not these themes, or even her plots. (One plot involves the Righteous States of America's interest in crossing through the kingdoms and over the mountains that isolate them from the rest of Africa in order to confront Napoleon Bonaparte. Another storyline traces an old woman's search for the religion of her youth. A third storyline traces a transgendered eunuch's evolving gender identity and sexuality; and a fourth follows the Prince and self-described "palace stud" as he tries to find meaningful work. Other readers could probably identify other "plots.")

No, Ms. Baudino's interest here is in playing with form. I've never read a book that attempts so many viewpoints. At least three characters (I'm sure there had to be more) weren't even part of the story. There is a computer-like all-knowing entity that is periodically questioned by someone else about what is actually going on in the book. There is also a nasty, modern-day amusement ride tender/scriptwriter who periodically "writes" pieces of the book. The characters themselves often let us inside their heads, often literally in tandem: at one point, Baudino had four columns of text, each one representing the thoughts of a character in one scene. Sometimes all we hear is one side of a dialogue. In one memorable chapter, this one-sided "dialogue" involves easily a dozen people -- all strangers who are never identified and never again encountered. Points of view shift constantly, without warning and sometimes without any clues as to who is speaking. Text angles off, flips into and out of italics, breaks into columns.

What Gael has wrought is akin to what would happen if you could meld all of Disney World's rides into one, long, confusing collage. It's breathtakingly weird. The problem is, I'm not sure I'm really up to all of this playfulness. I liked some of the characters and got interested in some of the dilemmas, but I was put off by the constant <squirming> (can somebody please explain this to me? -- PLEASE!!) and shifting. I guess in the end I'm just too literal to really appreciate a book whose last word is "Mrk---". If you're into weird playfulness, consider this wild ride. If you like your stories a little more coherent, though, this bud's not for you.

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