Oracle — Susan Boulton

This book is very clever, which is to say (in part) that it demands a fair bit of attention from the reader in order to follow what’s going on and who’s doing what. This isn’t a bad thing: the world is rich, the politics interesting, and the author doesn’t patronise the reader. One gets a sense of achievement from following the various strands and keeping on top of everything that’s happening. Things are often implied; they are rarely spelled out.At the start, the writing is powerful and poetic. As the POV moves from that character, it becomes more controlled and prosaic, almost. I missed the language of the opening, which had done a lot to draw me in, but all the writing was clear and effective — which is to say, I didn’t really notice it very much after the first couple of chapters.

So, Oracle is clever, well-written and intricate, and the author has a light touch.

That light touch makes the scenes of high emotion — almost all of which centre around Claire — extremely powerful. Possibly because of the time and culture in which the story is set, no one seems to moan or whinge, so it is by actions and by brief conversations that high emotion is expressed.

I wept. Frequently.

To balance the remarkable effectiveness of some of the emotional scenes, sometimes in less emotionally charged situations, I didn’t feel as engaged in the characters’ feelings as I like to be. Since I tend to read YA, however, and this is emphatically not YA, I suspect that’s mostly to do with me expecting more emoting and angst. And in fact, it was quite refreshing not to have it, or to have to think about emotion rather than having it rammed down my throat.

The world is fascinating: quite English-feeling, certainly pre-war, though I changed my mind every so often about how pre-. It felt like I was somewhere in the mid-1800s, after the Charge of the Light Brigade, amongst the chaos of (reasonably) recent industrialisation, with a vaguely Russian serf system where workers were tied to their bosses. That made the struggle to pass reforms fascinating, and the insight into the workings of the factories was also very realistic and nicely done (I live in an area which used to be full of jute mills, and I am well aware that accidents happened, just like the one portrayed).

Perhaps because of my own interest — and my fascination with North and South — I would have liked a little more of that side of things, which does, after all, underlie Matthew’s actions and his refusal to believe in the older politicians. Having said that, while I would have liked more of the factory/ workhouse scenes, because I found them powerful and effective, they weren’t actually necessary to understand what was happening.

inside a Dundee jute millInsofar as there were weaknesses, they were things that didn’t work for me rather than weaknesses overall. So, for example, I tend to avoid books with many points of view (like those by GRR Martin and many others) because I prefer to get to know one or two characters and stick with them through a complete adventure. There are many points of view in Oracle, and while I loved some of them (Claire’s, her father’s and Matthew’s in particular), I didn’t like the switches between them (I never do), and sometimes I resented that I had missed experiencing an event and had only heard it as reported from someone else’s point of view.

Every so often, I got a bit confused about what had happened and how much time had passed between sections. Towards the end, two of the characters got married, and their actually being married caught me by surprise because although I knew it was going to happen, it took place off-screen and very quickly. I was a little sad to have missed it, but Oracle is not a romance (or not really); it’s much cleverer than that.

My only real gripe (and it’s a small one) was that Matthew, who had been a point of view character and a central actor earlier in the book seemed to fade away rather at the end. The conclusion of his story was reported by other characters. His mother-in-law was another character who vanished, and his wife.

I hope Boulton is planning a sequel. I would like to know what happened to those characters. The story was intriguing, the world was fascinating. I really enjoyed it; it raised so many questions I would like answered.

(One tiny addition: if I were reading the book again, I would make a character list. There are a lot of people and some of them have slightly similar names, which occasionally briefly confused me)



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