On the Razor’s Edge by Michael Flynn
On the Razor’s Edge by Michael Flynn (Tor, 2013) Spiral Arm 4, continues the story of the dispute between the Confederacy of Central Worlds, a dictatorship run by Those of the Names, and the United League of the Periphery. What could have been a galactic conflict is scaled down to a form of conflict between groups of agents. On the side of light, well the less dark side, are the Hounds. Opposing them are the Shadows of the Names. For our immediate purposes, we’re concerned with Gidula, one of the rebel Shadows, who holds as a “prisoner” the multifaceted Donovan aka The Fudir aka The Scarred Man aka The Teller of Tales or Geshler Padaborn before he was fragmented. To engineer his rescue, his daughter Mearana arranges for Ravn Olafsdotter to kidnap her. She believes this will persuade her mother, Bridget-ban, to call together some of the Hounds to rescue Donovan. I should explain that Donovan and Bridget-ban are going through an extended “not-speaking-to-each-other” period in their relationship and Bridget-ban is highly resistant to the idea of rescuing her “ex”. So with that as the set-up, the novel meanders gently through initial manoeuvres and then launches into the build-up to the “big climax”.
In theory, this series is interesting. It takes place a long way into the future. Humanity has made it to the stars and then replicated its usual factionalism. Initially this drives technological development forward. The tendency to militarism always does that. But, after a century or two, quite a lot of the technology falls into disuse. People forget. Politics establishes different ways in which order can be maintained or the balance between forces adjusted. Inertia becomes more acceptable although, on the periphery, there’s much scrabbling for advantage. Hence the need for the Hounds to suppress piracy and generally keep the peace in what would otherwise be an anarchic environment. Also exerting an influence are relics of technology from pre-human times. Humanity is alone (probably), but there was a former silicon-based civilisation and it may have been exerting an influence.
At this point, I feel the need for a brief digression. One of the constant unresolved issues for me is the question of how, if at all, a writer should replicate accents and different speaking rhythms in dialogue. I confess that I tend to “hear” characters talking and, to some extent, try to capture that in the dialogue I report. It gives me a peg on which to hang the characterisation. A is from a particular place, speaks in a particular way, dresses in styles appropriate to that place, and so on. But there comes a point when I draw back from a full realisation of an accent. What feels right to my ear is not so easy for others to read when they don’t have my background and may find my notation difficult to translate into sounds for the inner ear to hear. So I try to avoid it for fiction but go some way in that direction for a documentary or journalistic style where accuracy can be more important than immediate comprehensibility. My sensibilities are therefore on full alert when reading this series. Its primary and many walk-on characters are given very distinctive verbal styles. The predominant feel is Celtic, i.e. as a generalised Irish, Scottish accent with occasional vocabulary suggesting Gaelic roots. Other speech patterns suggesting Chinese and Indian roots also appear. Personally, I think this overdone but, if you are happy to plough through all this approximated Celticism, the plot improves from poor to acceptable as the book progresses.
At issue here are two simple questions. If you have a culture that, over the centuries, has been an oligarchy with the ruling minority of wolves oppressing the sheep, what would it take to make the leadership fall? Second, even if it were to fall, what could replace it since leadership qualities have been bred out of the sheep? I suppose, after a while, anything will fall under its own weight, much as we might imagine a space elevator will rust and weaken until it breaks at an intermediate point and falls to the ground. Through the eyes of Donovan, we’re therefore allowed to watch the implosion of this dictatorship. The Hounds push it a little out of self-defence but, in a sense, it’s like watching a major structure collapse under its own weight. By my standards, the language in which this is delivered has some moments of interest but a lot of depressing dialogue to wade through. As language, there’s also a role in decoding old meanings in current corrupted usages. The distortion of language and history is quite well managed. But the whole flounders under its own weight. The opening third is ponderous and slow with little happening apart from different people “talking in funny accents” to each other. Yes, there’s some espionage and low level space opera fighting, but not enough to save the whole from being immensely tedious to read. Surprisingly the door is left open for a further book in the series. I definitely will not be lining up to read any more. If you’re a fan, On the Razor’s Edge will delight you. Otherwise, don’t bother.
More impressive artwork from Sparth.
For a review of the second in this series, see Up Jim River.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.