Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
Dar & Earth: Oraculi is the heart-wrenching, heartwarming first book in the Dar & Earth series by Athena Kaiman.
This book is surprisingly emotionally-charged and powerful, particularly in its first half, as it explores issues like personal loss, coping, death, and human suffering. It does so in a very compelling and captivating way, following two sympathetic characters living in two separate worlds and at two separate times, each experiencing feelings and emotions familiar to all of humanity.
The first of these characters is Aelish, an Oraculi (a sort of special guardian/guide akin to a guardian angel or fairy godmother) from the world of Dar—a parallel realm with a mutually beneficial relationship to Earth. We quickly realize that, despite Aelish's bizarre lavender skin, lilac scent, centuries of wisdom, and magic, Aelish has very grounded origins on Earth.
Aelish lived in Ireland in the mid-1500s, the daughter of the Earl & Lady of Brolaigh, Cian and Saoirse. Tragically, she lived smack-dab in the middle of a resurgence of the Plague, the “Black Death” (likely caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium). The Plague spares no one regardless of social status.
It quickly inflicts Aelish's high-born parents, and she is forced to confront not only their mortality, but also the apparent hopelessness of the situation and the crumbling world around her. Her religious faith seems not to help the situation, and neither do the plague doctors who are seemingly there for temporary relief and a payday.
Paralleling this situation is the character of Isabela, living in modern times, whose mother is dying of an aggressive form of cancer. An experimental treatment gives her mother only a 10% chance of survival, a fact which hits her like a bag of bricks, especially when she realizes that the rest of her family hid this success rate from her. Isabela, a young woman, experiences an existential crisis similar to the one that Aelish experienced 500 years earlier. Like Aelish, Isabela becomes angry and disillusioned with both her faith in God and medical science, feeling that both have failed her.
Something we really appreciated about this book is how fair and balanced it was in its approach to social, cultural, political, and religious issues. We are so used to these types of books forcing their activism and politically-charged messages down the reader's throat. Two such examples are The Cottage by William Thon and The Cat Who Fell to Earth by Nick Korolev, both of which are good books, but that are severely held back by just how didactic, heavy-handed, and preachy they are about the issues they're passionate about. Ironically, these two books share two common criticisms of humanity with Dar & Earth: humanity's reckless abandon leading to climate change and also how blind faith in a religion or belief system can stunt our progress.
However, this book is far less didactic and in-your-face about these messages. In fact, they're mostly in the backdrop of an interesting, character-driven story.
The other thing we loved about this book is that it really champions the idea of hoping when it's hopeless and keeping faith in ultimate good and purpose. Everything matters, even bad or tragic things. Nothing is pointless. That means that just because someone dies or just because we fail at something (like creating a cure in a timely manner), it doesn't mean that there was no point. Everything somehow, someway leads to the next thing. Progress is grueling and often slow. Centuries down the line, the Plague and Polio are afterthoughts now. Perhaps cancer can suffer the same fate and be a thing of the past. We can hope and aspire toward it.
It's a very positive message, one that we hope this generation and future ones take to heart.
The writing is also quite eloquent and beautiful. Athena Kaiman as a writer is clearly adept at her craft.
Also, both Aelish and Isabela are compelling characters, ones who gripped our hearts at times. There are little, subtle things they do—little things they say and think—that make them seem real. For example, when Isabela loses her temper at her family, we get a glimpse into the guilt she feels over this and the fear she feels of repercussions from her grandmother and father.
Also, when she gets out of the shower and makes a big deal out of drying her hair properly (knowing that her wavy Latina hair will get tangled into a tuft if not), it's very relatable. Many of us have experienced the same thing. Try showering and going directly to bed without drying your hair. Chances are it'll all be sticking up like an anime character's when you wake up.
Aelish's thought process is also relatable. This is apparent when she is troubled by the injustice and savagery in her time and when she goes out of her way to give her parents a proper burial. Interestingly, these experiences carry over to when she confronts the corrupt and unscrupulous people who inflict Dar like Gidius, one of the novel's key villains.
So much of this book builds toward a climactic meeting between the two main protagonists who are clearly kindred spirits.
This book does seem to lose steam and momentum after that point, around the time when it becomes more concerned with the relationship between Aelish and Thagar as well as the circumstances on Dar. Unfortunately, something seems off about the relationship between Aelish and Thagar. The chemistry just doesn't seem to be there, especially compared to the other more organic relationships and bonds we've already seen between Aelish and Declan and Isabela and individual members of her family. In other words, the relationship between Isabela and her grandmother is far more interesting and compelling than the one between Aelish and Thagar, which seems more like a generic, somewhat-forced love story.
The other thing that's somewhat funny is that so much of this book is ONE CONVERSATION held in the middle of night while everyone else in Isabela's home is supposed to be sleeping. Initially, this conversation is very interesting, but then it starts to drag and start to seem contrived. There's just no way that Isabela would just randomly mention the names of scientists and their medical findings. It just sounds more like the author talking than Isabela talking at that point. Somehow, someway, this conversation goes from, “Hi, my name is Aelish, I'm here to help you” to telling the entire history of post-Henry VIII England and Aelish's extremely twisty, turny resolution to the Plague by way of Dar.
Now, Dar isn't necessarily a boring place. It's full of incredible things like magical waterfalls, griffins, and six-legged salamanders, but there's something about it that just doesn't feel as gritty and real as Earth. That's not to take away from the fact that Dar is great example of world-building complete with evil kingdoms, a matriarchy, and political intrigue. However, these things are just a lot less compelling than Aelish's situation in 1500s Europe and Isabela's situation in modern times. Honestly, it was hard to buy into and care about the Komprathians, the Drone Rats, Yasteron, Thagar, and Gidius. The problem is that we wanted to get back to Isabela and her family. We wanted to get back to a younger Aelish on Earth. It's not that the fantastical Dar stuff was bad, it just wasn't as good or as compelling as the real-world/Earth stuff. It also didn't sound nearly as natural or organic.
With all that said, this book really is impressive. The two main characters are impressive. The writing, for the most part, is impressive. The world-building is impressive.
Definitely check this out on Amazon!