powerful churches have long kept their grip on the people with a theology of fear that makes formidable demons out of the poor, weak mutants of the surrounding badlands. to ward off these specters, an elaborate, tradition-encrusted system of kites with hex signs or armed observers fly over the realm. the men of this kite corps, performing hazardous duty to sustain a myth, are driven to find a separate peace, to transform, if they can, disillusionment into enlightenment, to move forward from an assumption of guilt to an assumption of responsibility. these obdurate moral and intellectual questions, together with a pastoral vision of a working, constable-esque countryside, and the appealing characters whose lives open up to reveal the web of their society are all part of the debt roberts owes george eliot, as he acknowledges by naming a key city middlemarch. structurally, however, roberts is so expansive and indirect that he challenges the reader to put the pieces together and some individual sequences are reticent to the point of obscurity. there is also a strong streak of victorian, paternalistic fantasy in the repeated rescue of waifs. if it is slow and demanding, this is still a rich, complex work that marks a considerable advance in maturity and skill over roberts's early stories.