Shooting the Sun


Max Byrd


Historical Fiction


Date Reviewed:

March 4, 2005

hooting the Sun is set in 19th century America, a few decades before the Civil War. The heroine is Selena, she is a scientist who studies the sun and the new art of photography, which is called daguerreotyping in that era. She is part of a team that has decided to capture the next solar eclipse on plates. This feat will demonstrate that the difference engine designed by Charles Babbage is capable of complex computations, and thus will ultimately result in more funding for Babbage to build a complete machine for the English government. Calculating the precise location of a total eclipse is difficult, especially since it will happen to fall in the great American southwest desert.

Selena joins a band of adventures who will venture into the forbidding land (full of savage Apaches and trackless wastes - no place for a woman!) to make scientific history. Each of the characters is well drawn, there is a stuffy Harvard professor who is convinced he can perform calculations better than Babbage's machine, there is the languid artist, the competent wilderness man, the adventurer who disdains the presence of a woman on such a dangerous undertaking, and the guide. In addition to a well drawn cast of characters, Byrd has done some great research, he knows just what details to throw in to the book to lend authenticity to the tale without boring the reader with info-dumps.

So - great plot idea, great characters, a great Western setting - it's the second coming of Lonesome Dove, right? Unfortunately, Shooting the Sun suffers from the fact it is way too short. This is a huge landscape, but the expedition zooms across trackless miles in just a few chapters. Obstacles appear, but are so swiftly overcome that don't seem so daunting. The book is only 300 pages long in the hardback edition that I read, it should have been at least 450 pages long to explore perils of the journey, and to fully develop the characters. Occasionally, we read - only x more days until the eclipse, which sounds like a great way to inject suspense, but things happen too quickly. Especially the ending! Byrd had a great confrontation setup, (there is a nefarious subplot to the expedition, there is more to the journey than an attempt to get a picture of a total eclipse) but the anticipated climax doesn't occur. I don't know why Byrd rushed this book, I wish I could have read "a director's cut".

Shooting the Sun is an enjoyable book, and a quick read. For some reason, it reminded me of The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, which also deals with Europeans in the 19th century heading out on a long voyage of discovery.