Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
In The Margarets, the eponymous character finds herself splitting into separate entities at various points in her life, each entity pursuing a different life, gaining different knowledge and experiences, and becoming a separate person. This is not an accident, of course, but all part of a carefully orchestrated plot by some gods to help restore humanity's racial memory so it will stop making war and killing planets.
Why yes, I do have the ability to take any novel's plot and summarize it in such a way that it sounds clichéd and hackneyed even when it's not. It's a gift. Likewise, Sheri S. Tepper has a gift for distilling very complex morals into easily understood and entertaining stories. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel that sometimes she simplifies matters too much. She spoonfeeds the plot in such a way that an avid reader like myself is finished the book long before it's over.
I have a weakness for stories in which the gods interest themselves in the protagonist's quest. What can I say? There's something just so satisfying and kickass about a nearly-omnipotent being taking your side. The gods of this universe are far from omnipotent—in fact, their only powers seem to be immortality and the ability to teleport themselves across long distances. Nor are they omniscient, which is why they need seven Margarets; one person must walk seven roads at once in order to find "the Keeper," an omniscient being who can restore humanity's racial memory. The gods are just as fallible as the humans they seek to protect, and the antagonists have their own gods plotting on the other side.
One would think that these limitations would avert a deus ex machina. Not so! While it's true that the gods don't directly cause the resolution, they essentially provide the Margarets with a step-by-step plan of exactly what to do. This is push-button universe saving, people. It's not compelling at all, and it removes the one element Tepper needs to preserve at all costs: the human factor. Humans don't have to do anything to receive their salvation. In fact, the "problem with humans," as Tepper identifies it, is a lack of racial memory and something that the human species alone cannot solve. To me, this is a disconcerting and defeatist moral, because if humanity can't fix its own fatal flaw, our species doesn't have much of a future, does it?
I interpret Margaret's divergences as a comment on how our choices in life affect how we live and who we become. If I'm correct in this interpretation, then Tepper's use of the gods as the prime movers undermines this theme—what is the point of making choices if all along this was part of some scheme to save the universe? Is Margaret her own people, or is she just a slave to fate? And even if I'm wrong, the revelation that this is all a divine plan doesn't make for very good storytelling. Margaret literally only contributes to the climax by being there. She doesn't make any choices, doesn't actually do anything beyond showing up and following her gods-given instructions. Tepper got seven main characters but a heroine ain't one.
Combine this with repetition that leads to predictability, and you have a narrative that, while eminently logical, isn't very interesting to anyone paying the least amount of attention. Certain parts of the story are entertaining. For example, take Naumi's induction into the Thairy military. As I read, I remember thinking how much it reminded me of Ender’s Game and how Tepper could easily have expanded that portion into an entire novel. The same goes for Grandma Margaret Mackey on Tercis, who literally lives an entire lifetime and sees grandchildren maturing before we come back to her. There's so much crammed into this single volume that Tepper has to simplify. In simplifying, the beauty of the narrative's complexity, as fragile as a spider's intricate web, falls apart.
I was also a little disturbed by the insistence on a dichotomy of "ethical" and "vile" races, the former possessing racial memory and the latter not. The protagonists and their gods routinely talk about how all K'Famir, all Quaatar, are evil and hate humans and want to wipe them out. When you ascribe such motivations to an entire race (or more accurately, Ms. Tepper, we could call it a "species"), you turn them into stereotypes. Even Star Trek, which has a habit of using entire species as metaphors for cultures or ideologies, doesn't go that far: there are honourable Romulans, devious Klingons, and even rebel Borg. In The Margarets, the mysterious Siblinghood of Silence ends up killing millions of K'Famir and Quaatarians, and no one bats an eye to what is tantamount to mass murder. Apparently, because they are "vile races," they deserve what they get.
If I am acerbic, it's because I'm so disappointed in how The Margarets played out. It has the potential to be a moving story of a quest for identity set against the backdrop of interspecies relations. I loved parts of it, and I was always interested in finishing the book, even by the time I had figured out how it would end. Yet I can't commend The Margarets. It's a book simultaneously too short and too long. This could easily have been a series, if Tepper had given every character and subplot the time it needed to mature and flourish. As it is, however, The Margarets ends long before the story is finished. The themes Tepper uses require a complexity that this book never achieves, which makes it less of a full-bodied vintage and more of a glimpse at what could have been.