Katie Waitman’s debut novel The Merro Tree was selected as the Del Rey Discovery of the Year in 1997, and it also won the Compton Crook Award (an award for best first science fiction, fantasy, or horror novel of the year). The Divided, Waitman’s second novel, was released in 1999, but she has not published a novel since despite having finished a sequel to The Merro Tree.
The Merro Tree is the story of Mikk of Vyzania, starting shortly before he was born. It details his struggles with his abusive mother, who would like for him to become a great artist someday, perhaps even a performance master. Mikk too would like to be a performance master, but he has difficulty with learning due to his extra-sensitive sight and hearing. When his mother decides she’s had enough, his father has him sent to a school for the performing arts where Mikk is discovered by a great performance master and becomes his last apprentice—and eventually an even greater performance master. Mikk travels throughout the galaxy, performing for the peoples of different planets and learning the arts of alien cultures.
However, the first scene introducing Mikk takes place long afterward when Mikk is in prison, arrested for defying the Council’s ban on performing Somalite songdance. He is awaiting the announcement of the members of the tribunal who will interrogate him before deciding if he deserves to die for his crime. These chapters about Mikk’s life after his arrest are interspersed throughout the novel until his past catches up to that point; then it completes the rest of this story.
I haven’t heard much about The Merro Tree, but what I have heard is overwhelmingly positive. More than 50% of its ratings on Goodreads are 5 stars and it currently has an average rating of 4.31. It seems to be a little known but beloved book, and I was excited to finally take my copy off the bookshelf and read it for Sci-Fi Month. Now that I’ve read it, I think my expectations were much too high, and I may have enjoyed it more had I not been expecting to be amazed by it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy reading The Merro Tree—I actually found it very readable and thought the story it told was quite compelling and unique. I do understand why so many people love it, but I personally wished it had more depth and felt it could be very trite and simplistic.
The Merro Tree is a very different science fiction book; at least, I had never read a book with an alien artist as the main character before! I was originally planning to say it was a very peaceful book unfocused on conflict and the fate of the worlds, but I decided that wasn’t quite accurate. Much of the story is light on conflict, and it’s not an action-filled or violent story, but there is a conflict between Mikk and the Council who regulated what he could perform. Mikk’s fate hangs in the balance since he may be sentenced to death. While it may be a stretch to say the fate of the worlds is affected by one man’s life, Mikk did inspire people on many worlds. It’s possible the outcome of the sentencing may create repercussions for his fellow artists by setting a precedent.
It does take a long time for the book to get to the specific circumstances surrounding the ban and Mikk’s imprisonment, and I did want to see the themes about artistic expression and culture explored more in depth than they were. While I’m glad the themes didn’t overshadow telling a good story, I also felt that the way they came up more closer to the end made it seem rushed and that there was room for more exploration. As it was, the way some of the story was wrapped up with a revelation about art by one character was just plain cheesy.
I also would have liked more depth from the characters, most of whom fit quite neatly into either “good” or “bad” categories. Mikk is so inhumanly perfect I found him difficult to connect to, and I found it frustrating that I wasn’t terribly emotionally invested in his story, even knowing he was facing a potential death sentence. Since Vyzanians are a long-lived race (one of them dies at 1,250 years old), it’s at least plausible that Mikk could become a master of various types of performing arts since he has a lot of time in which to practice and master his abilities. Part Two, entitled “The Apprentice,” covers 100 years so it’s not like he learns everything overnight! Yet he is also able to pick up new languages almost immediately (and this does not appear to be typical in comparison to other Vyzanians), and he does become the greatest performance master in the galaxy. Mikk is curious, compassionate, has a special fondness for children, and is accepting of other aliens and their cultures. As far as I could tell, Mikk’s biggest flaws were being stubborn and not giving up, and everyone seemed to love Mikk or come to love Mikk unless they were presented as not being particularly good people. On the other hand, someone has to be the greatest performance master in the galaxy and it makes sense that this person would be an impressive individual. He’s an inspiration to others and he’s perfectly likable, but I also thought he was so good that he wasn’t multi-faceted enough to be interesting.
In contrast, I thought the portrayal of one of Mikk’s foes was quite poorly done. The Council member Oplup is constantly described as being fat to the extent where this quality seemed to be emphasized over all others—there was such emphasis on his massive size that it stuck in my memory more than anything related to his personality or actual character. It was mentioned that his growing size was related to his religion, but I just kept getting the feeling that Oplup was supposed to be unlikable for being large as much as he was supposed to for being unkind to Mikk because it was mentioned repeatedly.
The Merro Tree was a good story that was never dull and kept me turning the pages; however, I felt it had too many problems to be a great book. The characters were too simplistic, the cultures and themes could have had more depth, and the ending seemed rushed (and was occasionally corny). I would be interested in reading the sequel were it ever published, but I wouldn’t be in a rush to do so.
My Rating: 7/10
Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.