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Irenicon by Aidan Harte

February 15, 2014 1 comment

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As all those who read these reviews will know, I’m a bear of little brain, frequently prone to error and misthinging. It’s a miracle I actually navigate from the start to the end of each day without killing myself or being killed by provoked authors, film directors or television producers. When books come in for review, I unpack them from their boxes and, in that order, copy their titles and authors into a list which then, somewhat arbitrarily, becomes the reading order. When I picked up this book and looked at the jacket, I wrote down Frenicon, taking the initial letter to be a gothic “f”. Imagine my surprise when later opening the book and finding the f to be an i. This does not exactly strike the right note (or letter for that matter) when it comes to communicating with the buying public.

So as to the review itself: Irenicon by Aidan Harte (Quercus/Jo Fletcher Books, 2012) is the first book in the Wave Trilogy and sees us flirting with genre boundaries. In broad definitional terms, we could be looking at an alternate history book which takes as its premise that Herod acted in time to kill the infant Jesus before he could be spirited out of harm’s way. This left the Virgin Mary with the task of introducing the elements of the Christianity that would otherwise have conquered the word of faith in the West. But without her son to show his divinity, the resulting belief system is rather different from the version we had in the fourteenth century when this book is set. Hence, if we take books like Pavane by Keith Roberts as our exemplars, this book is outside the definitional boundary because it does not accept the limits of the real world. It treats the supernatural as real. So for all it poses a classical “what if”, we’re actually pitched into a mediaeval Italian environment where a form of magic works. In broad narrative terms, the Concordian northern alliance is actively pursuing expansion into Europe, but is cautious of the independent city states to the south. To avoid vulnerability from the rear, it’s therefore using one of its twelve legions to suppress dissent.

The culture has been through a Re-Formation. Natural Philosophy has applied mathematics and observational physics to the real world. Initially ignored by the pervasive religion, a new breed of engineer arose and established sufficient power to be able to displace both religious power-brokers and the nobility. The result is theoretically a more meritocratic society, but one which proves equally open to abuse by a self-appointed elite. Underpinning the rise to power is the development of Wave technology. Essentially this uses water for military purposes. As a demonstration of its destructiveness, the engineers physically divide the southern city of Rasenna by creating a river. The waters of what’s later named the Irenicon smash through the city walls, devastate the central area, and become a permanent feature of the landscape. It would be just like any other river except that, surprisingly, it runs uphill and it’s also full of spirits which seem intent on grabbing any human who comes too close to the water. Death by drowning is the result. This city gives us the central metaphor for the book to explore.

Aidan Harte

Aidan Harte

Following its division, two feuding families assert control over their half. The Morellos rule the north, the Bardinis the south, albeit both are beholden to the Concord. The only person who might reunite the city is Contessa Sofia, the last surviving member of the Scaglieri family. When she reaches the age of seventeen, she could be allowed to become the ruler. Until then, she’s being trained in “leadership skills” by The Doctor, the head of the Bardini family. One day, Captain Giovanni, a young engineer from the Concord, arrives. He’s been sent to build a bridge across the river. The symbolism is transparent. This is a city divided against itself. Following the model of feuding clans, the socalisation process inducts the young into militias who develop fighting styles using banners designating their families and clan allegiances. The poor and emergent middle class are relatively powerless, depending on local “gangs” for protection. A bridge allowing all to move from one side to the other could end the feuds and reunite Rasenna. So those who are in power see the engineer as a threat. The poor see him as a figure of hope, a force for change.

Change management is challenging at the best of times. In a fourteenth century Italy, the first step is an undermining of the control of the two families and their retainers, quickly followed by the empowerment of the poor and middle class. In an ideal world, there would also be some degree of democratisation but that’s never going to be an easy sell to anyone who’s spent generations under the control of local families and clans. The book therefore explores a perennial problem where entrenched power structures confront the possibility of change. In modern times, we might be looking at the Troubles where relatively small groups of warring paramilitaries disputed which of the adjacent sovereign states should have the right of local control. As in the real world, so in this book, everything depends on the history and context for events. Aidan Harte nicely introduces illuminating insights into the process which Re-Formed the northern part of Italy and consolidated power in the engineers. How and why the science as magic (or vice versa) came into being is deliberately left unspoken. It’s going to be necessary to carve out positions for science and faith, and then support dialogue to understand the relationship and potential synergy between the belief and knowledge-based systems.

This leaves me seriously impressed both by the quality of the ideas and the ingenuity with which they are explored in the text. In simplistic terms, it’s a coming-of-age story as Sofia chafes against the control of The Doctor and begins to form a relationship with Giovanni. But this is rather more substantial than the traditional amor vincit omnia fantasy plot as our two protagonists come into mutual obit but then have choices to make. I could make disparaging noises about the clichéd necessity for Sofia to develop “powers” by overcoming her fear, but this would be to miss the point. Returning for a moment to the religious context, Mary did not ask to become mother to Jesus. She was chosen and had to make the best of it. In short, Irenicon is completely fascinating, leaving us poised on a wholly unexpected note as a new temporary balance in the power structures is achieved.

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

Here’s an interview with Aidan Harte.

Dark Faith: Invocations edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon

January 8, 2013 2 comments

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Dark Faith: Invocations edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon (Apex Publications, 2012) is a themed anthology looking at the phenomenon we call faith. As a word, it’s actually rather interesting. In its more literal sense, it refers to the constancy of a belief. The trust is so complete, the belief is held even though there’s no empirical evidence to verify it. So what gives rise to such confidence? The answer comes in the more connotational levels of meaning. Something must happen to create the trust. It starts as an intellectual process as the person learns about what others believe. This knowledge on its own is not enough. When the knowledge is absorbed, the person must decide to join the others in believing the knowledge to be true. The question, of course, is what persuades each person to become dogmatic in the belief? It’s a transformation of great significance, moving from intellectual understanding to a creed upon which to base future identity and behaviour. The point of this anthology, therefore, is for each author to offer a different view of this process for creating faith and understanding the limits of the faith, if any.

 

“Subletting God’s Head” by Tom Piccirilli has a nice sense of humour about what it would be like if you could move into God’s head as a tenant with Jesus just down the hall and the Garden of Eden on the third floor. In a relatively short piece, it challenges us to consider what our relationship would be with a deity as a landlord who knows our sins and has a track record of throwing tenants out of third-floor Gardens if they break the house rules. “The Cancer Catechism” by Jay Lake is a moving autobiographical piece translating his continuing experience as a cancer patient into an exploration of how it feels when the reality of death has to be confronted. “The Blue Peacock” by Nick Mamatas introduces us to the Yezidim. This is a Kurdish religion. It’s considered by some to be a heretical branch of Islam that worships the Devil. Alternatively, they believe that God placed the world under the care of seven angels led by Tawsi Melek, the Peacock Angel. As a distant relationship, this works well but there might be unfortunate side effects if Tawsi Melek actually arrives to administer human affairs, i.e. it might lead to lots of shitting unless you can be born again.

 

“Kill the Buddha by Elizabeth Twist is a wonderful variation on “alien invaders from another dimension”. This time, it’s the Buddhas and they’re back to make us feel good about ending it all. Thank God (that’s the Christian one, of course) for warriors like Gretchen and Scott. With them fighting on our side, humanity stands a chance to avoid transcendence — assuming that’s a bad thing, of course. Pursuing the idea of a fighter, “Robotnik” by Lavie Tidhar asks how a soldier gets through each day knowing the next combat situation could be his last. This will be all the more challenging for the advancing generations of cyborg troops. What will they believe in when their bodies can be repaired, their minds reborn? The answer is elegantly tragic. “Prometheus Possessed” by Matt Cardin switches to a different battlefield where a society comes under attack from a contagious psychic sickness. Only those Curers working in Psychic Sanitation on the frontline of diagnosis and treatment can keep safe the society resulting from Global Reformation. Unless, of course, the Sickness itself cannot be detained and treated in physical terms. Or perhaps ironically the Sickness will be a cure for society’s ills.

 

“Night Train” by Alma Alexander is about a woman who finally sees an end to the personification of her hopes and dreams as emotional winter comes. And yet. . . the Spring follows. She learns that, to persist through the dark night, all it takes is a little faith or faith from a little one. “The Sandfather” by Richard Wright deals with the tragic reality of bullying and shows one boy’s attempt to find happiness. “Sacrifice” by Jennifer Pelland asks the question we’d all rather not consider. Suppose God is real and He makes us a “one-time, life-or-death, take-it-or-leave it” offer, would we accept it? This is a delightfully cruel answer. “Thou Art God” by Tim Waggoner is elegantly cynical on the downside of godhood and the whole omniscience/ omnipotence thing. I mean who’d want that! In the same breath, “Wishflowers” by Tim Pratt tantalises with the magic of the old childhood game played with the seedheads of dandelions. He offers the idea we all need someone to show us the way but how far should sharing go? “Coin Drop” by Richard Dansky offers us a slightly different version of the apple-in-the-Garden trope. Free will is a tricky thing. To take the apple or not? To be or not to be. Now that would really be a good question. Similarly, if we think in Big Bang terms, the beings you would get with your “Starter Kit” by R J Sullivan would only be tiny specks of life. Even with a distorted time sense, they couldn’t possible be real in our sense of the word, could they?

 

“A Little Faith” by Max Allan Collins & Matthew Clemens shows that, when you’re praying for rescue, you need to know God works in mysterious ways (if you’re lucky, that is). “The Revealed Truth” by Mike Resnick gives us the background on the Miracle at Miller’s Landing and explains why the resurrection was only transitory. “God’s Dig” by Kelly Eiro sends our hero digging for the truth in his own backyard. “Divinity Boutique” by Brian J Hatcher sells the God you need for the truth buried in your heart. “The Birth of Pegasus” by K Tempest Bradford recasts the moment Perseus killed the Gorgon as a kind of mirror Oedipus complex by surrogate that allows a daughter to kill her mother to better understand her. “All This Pure Light Leaking In” by LaShawn M Wanak suggests it might be dangerous to hold a séance and try calling an angel. “Fin de Siècle” by Gemma Files takes us back to the idea of the Peacock Angel and shows us a different way in which art and religion may intertwine and devolve into decadence, addiction and death.

 

“The Angel Seems” by Jeffrey Ford demonstrates the extent of the problem that can arise when a newly created angel turns on God. It undermines the people’s faith in Him and may lead to a more general rejection of the deity. “Magdala Amygdala” by Lucy A Snyder suggests angels might remember it for us wholesale — so long as they survive the transformation, of course. And talking about transformations, “A Strange Form of Life” by Laird Barron suggests a new variety of cordyceps — those parasitic fungi — might be able to infiltrate humans in a warm underground environment. Now that might really produce flowers of a different hue. “In Blood and Song” by Nisi Shawl & Michael Ehart magic flowing from African gods helps fighters survive when a riot breaks out. It’s also possible this may signal the start of a new cult. The thing about cults is they usually start small but can grow dominant. “Little Lies, Dear Leader” by Kyle S Johnson tells of the dangers faced by missionaries in countries under the leadership of someone strong. When the evangelisers go, they leave behind those who have heard the call but now need to survive. Finally, “I Inhale the City, The City Exhales Me” by Douglas F Warrick sees a confusion at multiple levels between male and female, Japanese and American, manga and reality. If no-one’s entirely sure who they are, how can they relate to each other when their belief systems are so far apart?

 

Taken overall, Dark Faith: Invocations is a highly successful anthology, ranging in tone and content across religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, while flirting with magic and other belief systems. We run the gamut of sincerity, honesty, irony, cynicism and humour, something to be treasured when so many editors and publishing houses choose not to explore the darker corners of faith. There are some outstanding stories here and, no matter what you believe, this is a book worth reading.

 

Dramatically effective jacket art by Anderzak.

 

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

 

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