22 May 2009

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves

Here’s a review I wrote for Interzone a few months ago:

Stephen Hunt, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, HarperVoyager, 2008. ISBN 13: 978 0 00 723220 8

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves opens with the central character, Amelia Harsh, engaging in an Indiana Jones style piece of tomb robbery. She is an archaeologist obsessed with discovering the legendary city of Camlantis (once the utopian home of a race of pacifists) and she hopes the tomb will furnish evidence for her theories. Barely escaping with her life, Amelia returns empty-handed to the Kingdom of Jackals only to discover that she has been dismissed from her college post. However, the mysterious philanthropist Abraham Quest offers to fund an expedition to locate Camlantis. Although she blames him for her father’s bankruptcy and subsequent suicide, Amelia accepts his offer.

Amelia’s search for the key to the location of Camlantis takes her by submarine into the dark heart of the continent of Liongeli. On their way to the submerged ruins that contain the key, she and her companions (a motley crew of ex-convicts and Quest’s female mercenaries, with a half-demented steamman as their guide) have to face a mind-boggling array of threats. However, she succeeds in finding the key, and the search for Camlantis can really begin.

Amelia and Quest both hope that the discovery of Camlantis will usher in a new utopian age. But they have very different visions of how that is to be achieved, and one of those visions could be very bad news for those condemned to live in the present age. The stage is set for a climactic confrontation.

To say that this book is action packed is almost an understatement. There is something unremitting about the intensity of the action and the frequency with which dramatic moments arise. In keeping with the ripping yarn levels of action, the characters in the book are generally larger than life. In Amelia’s case, this is literally so: she has been magically enhanced into a cross between Lara Croft and a Soviet-era woman shot-putter. Abraham Quest combines the genius of an Einstein with the entrepreneurship of a Bill Gates. But I think my personal favourite is Cornelius Fortune: a shape-shifter who uses his powers to free political prisoners from the clutches of a crazed revolutionary regime. While Hunt’s characters tend to be larger than life, they are also all flawed in some way: Amelia’s obsession with Camlantis, Commander Black’s selfishness, Cornelius Fortune’s inner demons, Abraham Quest’s fanaticism. This is very much a postmodern take on heroism. Perhaps in keeping with their larger-than-life nature, Hunt’s characters are generally interesting and engaging but none of them is particularly deep or complex. The complexity in this novel definitely lies in the action and plotting rather than the characterization.

My first reading of The Kingdom Beyond the Waves managed to turn several hours in the departure lounge at Stansted Airport and a flight with Ryanair into enjoyable experiences! But what for me lifted this book above the level of airport escapism was Hunt’s vivid descriptions allied with a strong vein of anarchic imagination reminiscent of China Mieville at his best. Hunt has created some remarkable characters and races, from craynarbians (a race of crab-like humanoids) to the lashlites (a race of flying lizard-like beings with remarkable powers of prophecy), and set them in a world of remarkable natural phenomena, such as the floatquake (in which large tracts of land occasionally break off and float away).

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves has no literary pretensions. It is quite simply a wonderful escapist yarn with some nice satirical touches and a mass of literary and media allusions to tease the reader. Definitely a book to take with you on a long flight.

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