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The Devoured Earth by Sean Williams

July 25, 2012 4 comments

The Devoured Earth, Books of the Cataclysm: Four by Sean Williams (Pyr, 2012) pitches us straight into the action. The airship piloted by Griel but supported by Mage Kelloman and Skender, carries the Castillo twins up into the mountains. Those of you who’ve been following this story will remember the twins are now occupying the body of the homunculus: two peas in the one pod. On a different part of the mountains, Sal, Kail and Highson are in pursuit of the group including man’kin and Shilly, but falling further behind. Knowing the problems should Yod break through, Pukje offers them assistance. It’s suits him to have everyone in the right place at the right time. Shilly herself is still linked to an older self in another time. The older and apparently wiser Shilly spends her final years producing a vast pattern capable of bending time and space. All the younger Shilly can do is copy down parts of it. It’s like a jigsaw with no clear set of references to show which piece goes where in the overall design. But she’s the only seer left who can catch real glimpses of such a distant future. And even that glimpse is a fleeting one as Yod shuts down the link. You remember Yod. He wants to eat everyone.

The problem confronted by the defenders of the current realities against Yod is that the original design of the realms may be considered flawed. The presence of the Third Realm has always allowed people to explore the possibilities that exist at each pivotal moment of choice. Because of this, humans have been able to make optimal decisions. Equally, Yod can find new ways in which it may be possible to break through the defences. The problem is always one of prevention or early cure. If you can prevent a parasite from infecting the body, you remain safe. If you can detect a parasite early and kill it before it gets a toehold, you restore safety. But if you are complacent and do nothing when the parasite first appears, it grows powerful and can kill the body. People are vulnerable because they are slow to act.

A headshot of Sean Williams

Through the reappearance of Ellis Quick aka Nona, the sole remaining Sister of the Flame, the disparate forces gain a valuable ally. Then with the glast floating into and out of view to express his enigmatic delight in the world just as it is, we come into the final straight in this sprawling four book epic. There’s also a need for the author to be neat and tidy when it comes to wrapping up all the loose threads into a suitable tapestry we can all look back on and admire how well it’s all woven together. This reflects a fundamental truth that, at some point, everything stops. On the way, some characters might try to simplify decisions. In a way, this a way of deceiving themselves. People often feel more comfortable if they can winnow all the possibilities down to a final binary choice. Too many variables looks confusing, an admission that life is just too complicated to understand let alone control. Although, when you do come to think about it, half the fun we have as human beings lies in the randomness of our existences. We live with the risks of uncertainty — some even becoming addicted to gambling. Of course many individual lose, but, if we make humanity the casino, the House always wins. Change comes in fits and starts, but there’s a steady evolution. As a species we’ve never sat back on our laurels for too long. It’s always been one group or another pushing into more uncertainty and hoping for the best.

As a final thought, the language of the book is interestingly colloquial. It’s often the case that authors writing a major fantasy with epic pretensions aim for hyperbolic excesses. Let’s end a world today and offer help to the others from the future. You know the kind of thing you throw out on a wet Thursday afternoon when you want to get the plot going with a bit more pace. Usually the prose style affects high seriousness, a kind of majestic formality you might associate with the workings of courts in mediaeval times. Yet Sean Williams is frequently chatty and, through that conversational approach to the storytelling, cuts through much of the self-important affectation that makes many fantasy novels hard work to read. My only complaint is that all four books get bogged down in exploring every last option and possibility. There’s no end to the invention and creativity and, for me, that’s a problem. I prefer my books shorter unless there’s something wonderful waiting for us at the end. OK, so that asks the question. Is this the end that makes the entire reading experience worth all the effort? In this case, there have to be several answers. The first explains what happens to all the mass of people and different races who currently occupy the world(s). Yet, once you clarify the future for the mass, you can’t avoid asking about the individuals and, since this all began with the twins and Ellis, they need to be settled. There’s emotional satisfaction and almost everyone else who survives gets the payoffs they deserve. However, it’s not quite enough for me. I can admire The Devoured Earth and all that went before it, but I was not enthralled. It may be different for you. Whatever it’s faults, it’s certainly not a standard fantasy and so interesting to read in its own right for that, if for no other, reason.

For a review of the first book in the series, see The Crooked Letter.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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.

Sean Williams getting in tune with Zappa

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.

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