The Trees of Zharka by Nancy Mackenroth
The world of Zharka lives in perpetual penance—as dictated by its priests—for a great sin committed long ago. Though the specifics of that sin have been lost to time, the majority of the priesthood is convinced that it caused their god to turn from them, and only a life of drudgery and hard work will regain his favor.
One young priest, Toma, isn’t so sure.
I went into The Trees of Zharka with skepticism. The few reviews that do exist slant towards outright negative, and I have enough baggage about growing up in a punitive, puritanical world. Still, it was a book on my ForFemFan shelf, which meant it’d get read someday. Why not now?
As the plot of The Trees of Zharka is about 192 pages long and revolves around the effect of a religious system on the world, I expected a shallow, pulpy sprint to an unbelievable yet high-spirited conclusion.
I was proven wrong by a surprisingly nuanced world and a more meandering—and infinitely more believable—course to the conclusion. And unlike some other fun, pulpy novels, the characters of The Trees of Zharka were memorable. I actually remember Toma’s name! Hell, I remember his full name.
If I was surprised by the deft characterization of this super-short novel, I was even more surprised by the simple-yet-profound aspects of the religion, specifically that it revolves around 79 great trees. Priests tend to them, doing everything from watering and fertilizing them to mending broken branches. And when the priests aren’t caring for the well-being of the tree, they’re laying prostrate beneath them, praying and grovelling and otherwise trying to assure their god of their humility and servitude. It's simple and yet it feels authentic. That's the sort of religion I could see existing on our earth.
I also really enjoyed the only sci-fi element of the world: something about the local atmosphere grants some people special powers. Most are the usual sort of thing like telekinesis or telepathy, but there are stranger, one-off powers, too. Toma, for example, can sense the history of a place. He might enter a room and realize that the last person in there had been laughing. Or he might enter a house and feel overwhelmed with the remnants of anger. It’s a subtle power, but it really grounds him in his world.
It also is profoundly useful for learning about unwritten history, which proves incredibly useful as Toma sets about to uncover the secrets of his world.
The ending of The Trees of Zharka isn’t perfect, but it’s doggedly optimistic, and I find it hard to find fault with optimism. The path toward the ending, though, is the perfect blend of meandering-toward-a-point. Unlike a lot of pulpy novels that buckle down and stay buckled, we get to see Toma on boring, lazy days. I appreciate that as much as I appreciate seeing him tear shit up.
I appreciate the weight of the great sin, too. It looms, larger than life, always on the horizon. I hate to say almost anything about it, but, well, the great sin, and the story surrounding it, is heavy. It bucks the popcorn-like trend of pulp novels and just goes for it. I love that this sort of novel clearly has something to say.
Sadly, it appears that Nancy Mackenroth didn't really publish any other fiction. I went out on a hunt and came back lacking. Oh well. I appreciate the approach of leaving us wanting more. But, you know, if you know of anything else by her, hit me up in the comments.
Cover art by Jack Gaughan
The Tress of Zharka is available from: