Viewed as the start of her body of work, it makes an interesting novel to read, because you can see the threads that would dominate her body of work. Questions about slavery, about gender, and the roles of women, in particular, can all be found in the book, and the interest that I took in it came from this area. The rest of the novel, unfortunately, is mixed; it's not a bad novel, really, but the second half of it has no structural resonance with the first half, and Butler's characterisation of Doro and Anyanwu, the two god like figures who are centre to the book, never comes together at the end. Still, it's interesting: Butler begins with Doro, a being who jumps from body to body, killing men and women both to continue his own life, and who, in the 18th Century, stumbles upon Anyanwu in Africa, a kind of Goddess in the area, and able to change her form as is needed. Being centuries old, however, hasn't stopped the latter from marriage and children, and she ends up married to Doro, and brought back to the States, where Doro then marries her off to his son, Isaac, so they can produce children with special powers. I guess you could say it was a superhero breeding program.
The problem with the book, of course, is Doro and Anyanwu. The former is a primarily immoral being, going through lives, doing as he pleases, while the latter is his opposite, a healer, as Butler eventually states in the book, interested in helping rather than destroying, or building empires like Doro. To a degree, Butler has fashioned her two protagonists as representations of male and female gender roles in society, but she never explores this with any real depth in the book, and the last quarter of it, when Doro finds Anyanwu after she flees him, is borderline anti-climatic, silly, and somewhat insulting to any gender portrayal of women. Battered housewife syndrome, I guess, where the morals of the time that Butler was writing in give the book a different ending to what it would get now. Yet, if you can overcome that, the writing is actually quite good for a first novel, and lacks the clunk and roughness that a lot of authors have when they begin; in fact, I would dare say that Butler's later writing became slightly more grittier, which is actually an improvement, but you'll find nothing about her prose that would be a turn off.
There's a curious flirt with exploring sexuality in the book, too. It begins when Doro suggests that he take over a woman's body, and Anyanwu become a man, so they can have sex that way. Her response is one of horror, but later, you learn that in the 19th century, Anyanwu, in her female form, took a woman as her lover. Largely, it is done to show a change in her character, to show how being in American for over a hundred years has altered her, but at the same time there's a definite timidness to it, and I couldn't help how much of a stronger book it would have been if Butler had just amped that up a little, and gone in all directions. Of course, that said, it could easily have made it a much worse novel, but is this not what vague blog posts are all about?
I think so.