The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams
Once again, I’m obliged to remind the readers of these reviews that I’m an atheist. This disclosure will allow you an opportunity to judge the fairness of the opinions offered. The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams, Books of the Cataclysm: One (Pyr, 2006) introduces us to the twins, Hadrian and Seth Castillo, but not simply identical twins. They are mirrors of each other, sharing the same genetic code with one the mirror image of the other. Seth’s hair parts on the right, Hadrian’s on the left. Internal organs are also reversed. Their life on a holiday is disturbed by the arrival of Ellis Quick. Sexual attraction and the inevitable choices come between them. Then a man apparently called Locyta starts following them and kills Seth in some kind of ritual. Hadrian passes out and awakes in hospital. There’s a man claiming to be a detective by his bedside and a hospital orderly of some kind offering help from time to time. But it’s obvious there’s something very different about this place. When he eventually manages to sneak out of the room, he’s helped by Pukje. It would normally be reassuring to have someone help when you’re in trouble, but it’s not at all clear who or, indeed, what Pukje is. Nor does he appear to be offering reliable advice. This all becomes much more complicated when Hadrian gets out on to the streets and discovers he effectively has the city to himself. It’s a Mary Celeste situation. Food is abandoned on the tables, shops and offices are open. Yet there’s no electricity or other forms of power. He might as well be walking through an abandoned lifeless hulk — there are no birds or animals either — as if the city just ate up everything living. But counterintuitively, he still the sense his brother is alive. They have always shared a bond. Perhaps this empty city is some kind of illusion. Perhaps he imagined the murder of his brother.
When an author sets the readers a puzzle to solve, it’s usually fun to follow the clues to the big reveal at the end. It’s like a detective story where you try to second-guess whodunnit except this is a mythic fantasy. As if Sean Williams has not been signalling this clearly enough, we get to what happened to Seth following his “murder”. So it seems the twins are merely separated and the puzzle is what has happened, why has it happened and can anything be done about it. On the way, we get to consider the nature of reality and the extent to which religions have a role to play. In a purely physical realm, for example, the opportunity for what we might term supernatural activity is inherently limited. But if there were different realms where the power of the mind could transcend basic laws of physics, individual beings might assume powers equivalent to those exercised by gods. At one level, I suppose, a kind of Darwinism would prevail and those with the strongest minds would not only survive but prosper. At some point, they might even reach the borders of their domain and find the constraint frustrating. How can any one being be considered lord of all that can be surveyed when there are other realms? So then the dominant beings look for ways of forcing a breach in the border between their realm of the mind and the mundane realm. Perhaps a gateway can be formed through the relationship between two mirror image twins. Is their bond strong enough to force an opening and then keep it open so long as they are both alive? If so, the result might be a Cataclysm. For these purposes, Sean Williams assumes that events like the Fall and the Flood occurred, but they were so long ago, all we have left are racial memories.
Sean Williams writes with a wonderfully smooth style. He’s economical when it comes to driving the plot forward, but prepared to take a moment for some pleasingly purple prose if it’s necessary for an effect. And, let’s face it, he’s playing in a big sandpit here. At a stroke he can rewrite the whole of the past and explain how we ended up with different mythologies and religions as rationalisations of what word-of-mouth has passed down through hundreds of generations. Then he can be casually throwing aways images of horror as we see the deaths of different types of being, while introducing explanations of how systems of magic work and may be enhanced by the fact of the twins — think anode and cathode in a battery. That said, I come to a sad realisation. After a lively and thought-provoking beginning, the central section of the book goes on too long. The brothers are trying to acclimatise to the developing situations in which they find themselves. Obviously, the effects of merging two realms will be catastrophic to all the different groups of beings on both sides of the border. Some will fight to preserve the integrity of the two realms. Others will see personal profit in the chaos that will ensue from merger. The shifting alliances and combat situations are consistently inventive but they really only mark time until we get the the shorter final section in which we discover what, if anything, can actually be done to forestall the Cataclysm. Then it all comes down to choices and the strength of the relationship between two who have grown up in each other’s shadow.
Taken overall, The Crooked Letter explores some interesting territory. Myths and the religions associated with them have filled in the blanks of humanity’s uncertainties. When you don’t understand the physics of thunder and lightning, it’s not unreasonable to posit one or more supernatural beings who are using them as weapons in some distant battle. When so many die, it’s not unnatural for the survivors to think of a Flood that sweeps all life away and leaves only a few who are saved because they believed strongly enough in what a God told them. When a world is incomprehensible and apparently able to destroy all life, it’s always comforting to believe you can be saved the next time if only you believe. But, as time passes and the memory of events grows blurred, the nature of future threats becomes more vague. So, when a new Cataclysm threatens, the few must have sufficient objectivity to be able to stand back from events and make the right decisions. Failure will leave a deterministic universe to eat them up. Success means that the powers we might associate with godhood flow from free will and the strength to believe in a kind of utilitarianism. That the choices of the few will be most divine when they benefit the greatest number of people. Looking back on the book, I think it’s way too long but it was an interesting ride to the end.
For a review of the final book in the series, see The Devoured Earth.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.