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The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough

The Chosen Seed

The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough (Ace, 2013) The Forgotten Gods: Book Three starts off with Cassius Jones still in hiding. He’s been framed for murder and, even in the best run countries, he would find it difficult to avoid conviction. That we find ourselves in a dystopian alternate history version of London compounds the problem. In this timeline, the corruption has been institutionalised and police in key positions tend to get the results they decide are necessary. Because Jones has become inconvenient in two different contexts. . . Well, when it comes to Mr Bright, the ostensible antagonist, the relationship with Jones is more equivocal. Indeed, it might be better to characterise the relationship as a form of gaming. Mr Bright, of course, has been playing a long time. He has the experience and the perspective. But Jones has proved to be a fast-learner. He’s also angry to find himself a victim of an organisation he does not understand. In the rational world, he cannot bring himself to define the relationship between Mr Bright and his family as Faustian. This was a form of breeding program. In return for unspecified rewards, two sons were born. Then the first-born son of the younger son was swapped on birth. This is the central mystery of the trilogy. What was the point of this program?

Jones is driven by the need to find his nephew Luke. It’s just grown more challenging now he’s on the run. Fortunately, some of the criminal bosses he’s dealt with in the past see a possible benefit in helping him now. As a wanted man, he starts as not quite a prisoner. Meanwhile, back in the police procedural part of the book, there are still those who believe Jones to be innocent. Their problem is the same as that experienced by Jones. The prevailing culture is hostile to those who do not toe the party line. If these “good” detectives and the expert profiler are seen to be challenging the orthodoxy of Jones’ guilt, they will be in serious trouble. In a way, they are also prisoners of circumstances. Yet, unless the official and unofficial parties can co-ordinate their activities, this is not going to turn out well.

Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough

The problem is compounded by the dissension in the ranks of the “organisation” and the network it supports. In the old days, the First had provided a coherent approach to running affairs on Earth. When Mr Bright became the leader, not everyone thought he was the right choice. Now the First has woken up again, the factionalism becomes more overt. Aggravating the situation, one more of the organisation’s membership is dying and decides to take a few locals with him. This gives the Government the task of dealing with what may turn into a major epidemic. People are dying already.

What makes this trilogy interesting is the deliberate overlaying of genre elements. In the first book, we begin with what seems exclusively a police procedural but it rapidly acquires what may be a supernatural overlay in the killing of various students. Some of the events may be considered by some to trespass into horror. Looking back, this is actually slightly more science fiction than fantasy with those who had involuntarily participated in a scientific experiment being terminated. Indeed, the way the ending shapes up is almost pure science fiction but embedded in a form of fantasy context. It’s a context that skates over various myths or reinterpretations of events fitting into an Abrahamic tradition. In the final pages, there’s a coherent explanation for all the events described in the three books which blends the supernatural and science fiction together. If you’ve reached this far, the author has won. It no longer matters whether the explanation resonates with you as an individual. You’ve invested in the life of Jones as he struggles to rescue his nephew, and then deal with the increasingly dangerous situation he discovers.

This book didn’t come up for review so I spent my own money to find out how the trilogy ended. That says a lot about the quality of the series. I wanted to see how the plot was resolved even though I strongly suspected it might be straying towards a less interesting plot resolution (by my standards). In fact, I was more or less right about what was happening and, because it’s cast as science fiction, thought it marginally less silly than I might otherwise have done. To get there, we have rather more character than plot development. Of course, a lot of “stuff” happens, but events give us a better opportunity to watch all interested parties respond and show more about themselves. This makes The Chosen Seed a pleasing read. There’s a lot of craft involved in building this particular scenario and then making it not wholly incredible in its own terms. In no small way, this is due to the fact Jones and those helping him must ultimately rely on basic skills like historical research and hacking to get their results. If you like a blend of horror, supernatural and science fiction delivering a police procedural outcome, this is a very good trilogy to read.

For reviews of other books by Sarah Pinborough, see:
A Matter of Blood
Mayhem
The Shadow of the Soul.

The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough

August 18, 2013 1 comment

The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough

Reading fiction is not the same as reading academic texts. A book designed to impart information need not require anything more than mere comprehension from the reader. Words are weighed for their meaning and, where relevant, that meaning is committed to memory. Fiction, on the other hand, requires a more holistic and aesthetic response from the reader. Through the activity of reading, we’re invited to enter the world of the author’s imagination. We walk through situations and meet characters in a our minds. Where the author is close to our own “wavelength”, we transcend in the individual words and embrace the “big picture”. But where the language and narrative structure fail to resonate and, in fact, represent a barrier to effective communication, we struggle to empathise with the characters and do not willingly suspend disbelief.

The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough (Ace, 2013) The Forgotten Gods 2 is significantly more effective than the first volume A Matter of Blood. The question I find myself asking is why I should feel this second book in the trilogy more satisfying. Both are essentially the same, being police procedurals in which the lead detective is increasingly involved in the investigation of the supernatural. In both books, said detective is framed for a murder he did not commit. Consequently, he finds himself alienated from the mainstream of his “world”, struggling against his own nature, denying rather than embracing what might be useful abilities. At a superficial level, the second book is replicating the first but with different crimes for the detective to investigate. Yet the second is better. . .

I think it’s a question of perspective. When the first book kicks off, it’s presenting as a near-future or alternate history novel. The establishing scenes focus on creating a picture of this different version of the world in which corruption has become more institutionalised and poverty more overt. In other words, it’s creating a milieu in which there can be both police investigation and a political commentary. So when the novel pivots into the supernatural, it’s redefining its parameters and expecting us to follow. Having reached the end of the second book, I can now offer the opinion that the world has been manipulated, encouraging it down the slippery slope into this desperate and somewhat dysfunctional state. Nothing in this trilogy happens by coincidence. There are plans in motion which manifest through crimes to be investigated, and political manoeuvring affecting governments and relationships between countries.

Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough

So coming back to the question of perspective, the first book keeps the reader somewhat off balance because we can’t be sure how the broader narrative is intended to be read. If this was purely a police procedural, we could watch over the detective’s shoulder as clues come into view and second-guess the whodunnit solution. If it was a political allegory, we could characterise the set-up as a right wing dystopia and wait for a left wing backlash. If it was a supernatural novel, we would be experiencing thrills and chills as the creepy, scary stuff oozes from the pages. But when the tone is very much a stoic policeman trying to make a difference despite his own slip into immorality (including drug abuse), we hesitate to find the nature of the crimes anything more than yet another Criminal Minds serial killer episode. Having resolved all that uncertainty by the end of the first book, we therefore start this book with a clear view of what game’s afoot. Indeed, to confirm the paradigm shift into a predominantly supernatural or possibly science fiction mould, we spend a significant amount of time with the supernatural beasties or aliens, watching their plotting and learning more about their agenda. Now that we’ve moved clearly into protagonist and antagonist mode, the scale of values can be adjusted and we can empathise with the relevant individuals. For the humans, it’s all about whether they can be more than mere pawns. For the “others”, we see the outline of their intentions and begin to assemble evidence to judge whether they are forces for good or evil.

As to the core crimes to be investigated this time around, we have terrorist bombings in London, Moscow and New York. In London, there are some suicides among the student population which seem to be connected. At a personal level, our detective is trying to discover what happened to his nephew who, apparently, was switched at birth. So some of the political context established in the first novel comes to the fore with an added international dimension. Some of the suicides are side effects of the supernatural activities or alien experiments. And the detective moves closer to discovering what happened to his nephew.

Put all this together and The Shadow of the Soul proves to be a gripping read with fascinating possibilities left at the end. I should note the irony that, under normal circumstances, it’s the truth that sets you free. In this book, it’s rather the other way round.

For reviews of other books by Sarah Pinborough, see:
The Chosen Seed
A Matter of Blood
Mayhem.

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

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