Thursday, January 03, 2008

Review: That Old-Time Religion

That Old-Time Religion, by Will Sanborn
6/10, Creative story idea with too many unexplored possibilities.

Disclaimer: Will is a friend of mine, or was before I wrote this review, anyway. All criticism should be taken constructively.

In the anthropomorphic fandom, the ancient Egyptian god Anubis has become quite the popular figure through a combination of traits. I think the cachet attached to the "old god," along with the jackal totem (canids are probably the most popular single animal group in the fandom) and the dark, mysterious black color contributed to his popularity. He shows up a lot in art, but this is the first time I'm aware of him being used in a literary context.

The story of "That Old-Time Religion" is similar to Neil Gaiman's "American Gods": the old gods still walk the earth, less powerful now that their empires have collapsed, and one of them (the same one, actually, in both books) is plotting to unleash some cataclysmic event that will restore their former glory. The main character in "That Old-Time Religion" is Thomas, a rudderless young man who stumbles upon some strange characters in a carnival and gets caught up in the quest to save the world.

Anubis enters the scene a little later in the company of Thoth, fellow old god and sometime lover. They join Thomas's group's quest, during which time Anubis and Thomas grow closer, leading Thomas to explore his openness to a gay relationship. There are a few sexually explicit scenes in the book, both gay and straight (and, well, mixed).

While I liked the relationship component of the story, I think Will could have done a better job tying it in with the quest. When there are two storylines, often one slows to a crawl while the other takes center stage. Either a little more work could have been done to integrate them, or one could have been given clear priority over the other. In the end, neither felt fully developed to me. I thought that the quest could have been fleshed out earlier--it was a lot of "we know something is going on, but we don't know what" until the very end, when everything happened at once--and though the relationship aspect fared better, it still felt more like a stretched-out short story. Once the initial question of whether Thomas could sleep with a guy (or a male old jackal-headed god) was resolved, there were few conflicts.

In fact, I thought the story could've used more conflict in general. All five people in Thomas's party generally get along great (even when the carny walks in on Thomas sleeping with his wife, there's no conflict--"we have an arrangement"). Everyone is very caring and nice, which is a problem I have with my own characters at times. I would like to have seen more tension: there is some angst at Anubis and Thoth and the others losing their old dominion, but you get very little sense of what it meant for them to have those dominions, apart from a short section in which Anubis reminisces, which was a nice touch.

Thomas's big conflict in the story is "can I sleep with and care for this incredibly hot, nice, sweet, older person who likes me a lot and happens to be of the same gender?" So that sort of limits things right there. I thought it would be interesting to see some of Anubis's struggle when the plot is uncovered, that his longing for his glory days might translate into a yearning to join the other side. But he's too nice, and his friendship/relationship with Thomas is never in doubt.

Since this is self-published, it is worthwhile to take a moment to comment on the publication. Will typeset this book himself, with some lovely art by Heather Bruton, and I have to say the production looks very professional. In the text itself, another editing pass might have helped; I caught several misspellings, grammar issues, and so on. It definitely ranks in the upper tier of self-published works I've seen.

Will has a lot of creative ideas, and this story did keep me engaged and reading to the end. In the end, I felt it remained a "fan story"--the ending has that wish-fulfillment quality that is the hallmark of many fan works, and the ideas aren't as much developed in the service of the story as they are garnishes to a "wouldn't it be cool if a regular guy met and fell in love with Anubis" story. I'd like to see Will exercise his imagination a little more, to think about what it would really be like to have "exotics" in society (a facet unexplored save for some token racism), what the old gods would really be up to (though Neil Gaiman and Bill Willingham have set a rather high bar in that territory, there's no reason the rest of us can't have fun with it), and what pitfalls come about from every kind of relationship. This story shows a lot of potential, and I'm looking forward to seeing what Will comes up with next.

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