Volume 16, Number 1, Summer, 1988

The Merro Tree

By Katie Waitman

Cover art by Cliff Nielsen
Del Rey paperback $5.99
Reviewed by Claire Wolfe

Katie Waitman has a gift for creating alien realities. As you move among the intelligent serpents known as the Droos, the dog-like Kekoi and the other creatures that populate the worlds of The Merro Tree you will probably quickly feel at home. You'll believe these non-human characters and their passions.

You may not feel comfortable, however. The Universe Waitman creates is one of alien eroticism and intensely mysterious relationships. It can be as disturbing as it is intriguing, and in the early chapters of the book, the world of her protagonist, Mikk, is a hell of pain and confusion.

Mikk the Vyzanian is an emotionally fragile biped with white skin, lavender eyes true-red hair, and heightened sensory perceptions. When we meet him as a child, he is being driven by a mother who makes c-ezaDevisemloveable [garbled --ed] to become a performance master.

Mikk does, in fact, become a performance master (a master of acting, dance, song and other arts of a myriad species—the greatest artist of all. As he advances in his arts, he moves through a rich universe of sensory and sexual experience.

However, as the book opens, Mikk is awaiting trial on the capital charge of having performed a forbidden art. Waitman takes us back and forth between past and present to show how he ended up in a dank prison cell, then carries us forward to an emotionally charged verdict.

The Merro Tree is an intriguing book, and Waitman, a secretary at a law school, is a talent to watch. Del Rey awarded this novel "Discovery of the Year Status." Waitman's ability to describe alien eroticism and artistic passion is outstanding. To the extent that she focuses on, or remains within the realm of that vision, she kept me fascinated.

But in this, her first novel, Waitman reached very far and fell somewhat short. At times, she seems to lose her vision entirely. After the first human enters the scene, about one third of the way through, the erotic, mysterious, unusual elements give way to something reminiscent of an old Star Trek plot. For nearly 100 pages, the book stumbles through clichés before it recovers its identity.

Waitman sometimes isn't able to give a convincing descriptions of the arts her characters practice; we must take her word for it that the arts are enchanting. Characters come and go randomly and rapidly. In one instance, a being appears, performs and dies within a space of seven pages. Clearly, we are supposed to be touched by the being, her art and her death, but Waitman simply doesn't give us time to develop a relationship that would let us care.

Even at the book's ultimate crisis, when readers ought to be holding their breaths in anticipation, I found myself asking why the greatest artist in the universe was in such an unlikely situation, and why he was behaving (to my mind) like a ten year-old who's just been "double-dog dared" to do something dangerously stupid.

Still, Waitman pulls her plot and characters back together just before the conclusion of the book. There's more than a little deus ex machina in that conclusion. But it's such a well-executed bit of Writing [garbled --ed] I was able to suspend disbelief and enjoy it.

The Merro Tree isn't an explicitly libertarian book. It isn't an explicitly anything book, politically or artistically (though it does make freedom-oriented observations on censorship). However, if Waitman can find a consistent vision and carry it through her future novels, she could potentially become a very strong voice in SF.

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