april 13 2022 : the sugar festival (paul park)

i liked the style of this novel a lot... park's writing style was enjoyable to me, personally, because i'm a huge fucking fan of long and elaborate metaphors and strong descriptions (when they don't detract from the plot). the sugar festival was so rife with both, it created such a distinct atmosphere to the historical-narrative style of storytelling that i don't think i've ever seen done in a novel before. all of the dialogue felt very natural... every character had their own register of speech and weird-guy-complexes that made them super compelling (even if they were, most of the time, Meant to be unlikeable people). the way the world was set up was verrrrry interesting too. i'm always a fan of worldbuilding where the author essentially just dumps you into a highly-elaborate world with a unique political and religious climate and a deep deep history that has clear ramifications on everyone's actions and thought processes that you literally just Are Not Familiar With At all, and you're expected to muddy around in there in order to figure out what the hell is actually going on for yourself... it mirrors the actual plight of the antinomials in the story and really makes you Feel the misery and religious fervor of the strictly-stratified charn like you're an actual outsider to the city (which all of the main characters are in one way or another).

abu's arc and execution was very well done and definitely one of my favorite moments in the book. the violence of the ending to book one and the way his ritualistic execution set up the main conflicts of book two (the criticism of the very catholic idea of "taking your suffering" as a form of redemption and the movement of charity and thanakar away from their original social ranks) was very fun... the plot of the book is complex (like a political-historical narrative would be) but none of the characters do anything that feel super Out Of Character, even if they do act incredibly irrationally, following religious traditions that we would never understand in the real world. which really just speaks to how well park immerses you in the novel. i was very lost at the beginning but by the point of the climax i like. I understood it y'know. like i took all of the characters' actions to be natural even though there's such a clear dissonance between charn and the real world that simply cannot be reconciled in any non-dissonant way.

which leads into one of the criticisms i have about it, honestly. park's universe is complex and multifaceted hut at the same time... strangely one-dimensional. it's like he can't decide between writing "objective historical narrative about a political system on an alien world ruled entirely by religion" and "character-driven novel zooming in on the lives of three highly-ranked members of society and seeing how their psychologies change in response to political turmoil and revolt." this can be balanced well, but park didn't necessarily do it well. all the social groups in charn act like huge masses... there are moments of supposed uprising, but in reality, they're all "painted" the same way, especially when he's talking about lower-class individuals moving as one great, homogenous group without any real differentiation between them, revealing sort of an internalized bias in the way park probably thought about classes in the real world, haha. he also relies way too heavily on sexual imagery as the "driving point" of the religion that all of the characters follow when, really, i think it was for shock value to sort of set charn apart from the real world. there was some commentary made about the way sex sort of "possesses" the spirit and corrupts even the purest of religious origins or whatever, but the constant constant constant description of phallic statues and imagery was... grating at times. even if it was supposed to be a form of immersion, it didn't feel like a "backdrop" to the story itself. it was front-and-center the whole way through. which... is kind of the point, i guess, since the religion is meant to have such a strong hold on the people? but there were so many other aspects To the religion (ideas about predestination, ranking, etc.) that just were brushed aside in favor of "sex description of statue with phallic imagery sexual pleasure of the prophet ankghdt." it would've been nice to focus on the other parts of this mystical otherworldly political-religious cult for once, even if sexual pleasure was supposed to be what united their beliefs.

also the way that the antinomials were presented in the book felt sort of fucking weird. the way the class system as a whole was presented felt really fucking weird tbh. like on one hand, it's meant to be a criticism of classism (you get to see how paradoxically dissonant the psychology of all of the upper-ranked starbridges are as they try to justify their own excess and extravagance), but that... ironically feeds into real-world classism itself. park is trying to divorce the socioeconomic issues of the real world from the socioeconomic issues of charn but it's painfully obvious that he has this romanticized, western view of what the "lower class" is like and how the "lower class" lives that shaped the way he depicts the lower strata of his book... like fuck, i praise the abu character arc but to put it bluntly, abu is a highly-ranked prince who mingles with lower-class people and becomes worshiped as a virtual god for "daring" to extend mercy to the poor. On one hand, yeah that's an allusion to jesus. On the other hand, like i mentioned before, park "paints over" these complex topics and opinions in broad strokes, only alluding briefly to potential dissension before returning to his focus on the psychologies of his main characters. and the whole concept of the antinomials being a LITERALLY DEHISTORICIZED PEOPLE (they are mentioned multiple multiple multiple times as having "no past or future" and it's canon that they don't conceptualize anything besides the present and have no way of communicating with each other beyond song) who are chased out of their lands by the priests of charn and forced into the lower strata of society or otherwise arrested/discriminated against… it feels like an Incredible caricature of native americans and indigenous peoples that's central to, once again, developing one of the upper-class main characters of the novel. idk! park Tries to criticize and mirror some very very complex irl issues in the politics and history of his world but ends up either making broad generalizations about a lot of them or coming off as ignorant, if somewhat well-meaning. the book itself was published in the late 1980s so obviously it shows its age in matters like this, but it was still definitely a bit off-putting at times.

would i recommend this book? honestly probably not, unless you love your complex fantasy religious political history books. i think it takes a lot of inspiration from the style and worldbuilding of dune, but dune just. does it better in every way possible. park tried to distinguish it by having it focus a lot on sex and creating a hypothetical religion where the divine act of sex and procreation and predestination based on your family line is the centerpiece of every ritual and belief but it's so heavy-handed at times with its descriptions that it can get grating. at the same time, i did really enjoy the deep-water immersion of the world, he does a really good job at making you feel the misery of charn down to your very Core. you are NOT going to be happy reading this but on god if the misery doesn't feel good to read about. the main characters are highly compelling, but the book waffles a lot between objective-subjective viewpoints about the role they played in the warfare and turmoil and doesn't always do the best job at reconciling these distinct perspectives... they bleed into each other in ways that don't always make sense, i think. it wasn't like i don't think it was worth the read (i was pretty immersed in all 600 fucking pages i mean), i would just be Highly hesitant to recommend it to anyone who like. isn't into fucked-up pretentious writing styles and who i don't know already likes this style of content. because like, i Do, and even then it got irritating at times with how heavy-handed and long-winded some chapters ended up being.