27 October 2009

Consorts of Heaven

Here is a review I wrote for Interzone 223:

Jaine Fenn, Consorts of Heaven, Gollancz, 2009. ISBN: 978 0 575 08322 6 (hbk), 978 0 575 08323 3 (trade pbk)

Consorts of Heaven is Jaine Fenn’s second science fiction novel. However, readers might be forgiven for thinking they had picked up a fantasy by mistake, since much of the novel’s action takes place in the most backward, rural parts of a pre-modern society which is governed by an oppressive theocracy.

The novel opens with Kerin finding an amnesiac stranger (subsequently known as Sais) near the mere above the village of Dangwern. Kerin’s position in village society is already ambiguous – her mother was accursed, but her son Damaru is ‘sky-touched’ (a kind of holy fool with possibly magical telekinetic powers) and she is tolerated for his sake. The coming of the stranger into her life is to change it forever.

The bulk of the story is taken up with the quest to restore Sais’s memory. This is eventually achieved with the aid of a priest. But the recovery of his memory reveals the horrifying truth about Kerin’s world and forces him into a confrontation with the real powers behind the religion that dominates the world.

The story is full of well-worn tropes: an amnesiac stranger whose memory contains secrets that will rock society to its foundations, an oppressive theocracy governed by apparently benign but covertly malicious powers, a quest, a space elevator. Fenn even manages to slip in the need for people with special (in this case, telekinetic) powers to make interstellar travel possible. However, she has woven together these familiar themes to create an original and very enjoyable story.

But it wasn’t just her handling of familiar themes that I enjoyed. Her characterization is very good, and she is sympathetic to all her (human) characters so that readers will find themselves warming to characters that lesser authors might have left as stock villains. Description, too, is generally very good. Here, Sais’s perspective as an outsider is very helpful in allowing Fenn to describe things that the natives take for granted (for example, the disgusting latrines in Dangwern). Oddly (for what is meant to be a science fiction novel), I felt the descriptions became less clear once the action moved into space (perhaps because now Sais was familiar with his surroundings but Kerin didn’t have the necessary background to make sense of them). Finally, the story is well paced, with the action (and revelations about Sais and the world he finds himself in) coming at just the right rate to keep me turning the pages.

Unfortunately my enjoyment of the story was slightly tarnished by weaknesses in the world-building. As I understood more about Kerin’s world I became increasingly sceptical about Sais’s ability to communicate as soon as he regained consciousness. This is a society that has been cut off from the rest of the human race for at least 1,000 years and yet there has been virtually no linguistic drift! Nor was I entirely clear about the relationship between the villains (the Sidhe) and the human race. The fact that the people of Kerin’s world carry Sidhe genes suggests a very close relationship indeed, but at times Fenn seems to present them as an alien race. Finally, the raison d’etre of this world struck me as wildly extravagant and unconvincing. (Why use an entire world when a sufficiently advanced genetics laboratory would do?)

Nevertheless, in spite of a few weaknesses, this is a very enjoyable piece of writing from a promising new SF writer. Jaine Fenn is definitely a name to look out for in future.

Idealist discussion group

Judging by the number of comments received, the most popular entries on this blog have been my comments about Idealist, an ancient free text database originally developed by Blackwell. Since I find I am not alone in thinking that it has never been surpassed, I have now set up a Google group for users of Blackwell/Bekon Idealist. If you are interested in taking part, please pop over to its home page and sign up.

26 October 2009

Wear a cross for Christmas?

Jonathan Gledhill, the bishop of Lichfield, must have been surprised to discover that his latest pastoral letter was in the national news over the weekend. According to the BBC, for example, he had created a stir by calling upon Christians to wear crosses for Christmas.

Like so much reporting about religion, this turned out to be a misleading half-truth. In fact, what he said was:
Sometimes I think it wouldn’t be a bad thing if in December we all wore a fish badge or cross necklace and sent out a loud message that Christians aren’t going to disappear quietly from the market place or put away our crib figures in a hurry

But the real point of his letter was:
What I have discovered afresh this month is that the mark of a real Christian community is not so much the lapel badges and crosses we wear as the spontaneous, generous and practical love we show to the world. Christians should not be intimidated into putting away their neck crosses or lapel badges, but in the end these are not the badges that matter. The mark that matters is far more challenging.

I shall certainly continue to wear my cross – and not just for Christmas, since it is a constant reminder to me of my commitment to Christ.

06 October 2009

GSFWC news

The Glasgow SF Writers Circle is meeting tonight to vivisect another short story.

Recent news about group members includes the fact that Ian Hunter has received two honourable mentions in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year Vol. 1 and (H)al Duncan has been shortlisted for yet another award (this time for his contribution to expanding our vocabulary).

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, one of our semi-detached members, Gary Gibson, now has a regular column on BSC Review. You can read his first piece, on the eternal war between SF and mainstream fiction here.

05 October 2009

Francistide and penitence

The weekend just past has been something of a Francis fest. On Saturday I attended a gathering of Franciscans from across the west of Scotland for a commemoration of the transitus of St Francis at Blessed John Duns Scotus Church in the Gorbals. Although primarily a Roman Catholic event, the organizers kindly invited members of the TSSF to take part. And yesterday the TSSF held its own Francistide service at St Mary’s, Hamilton. In different ways, both events reminded me very strongly that when Francis founded the Order of Friars Minor and, later, the Third Order, he saw them as orders of penitents.

Penitence must be one of the most unfashionable words in the vocabulary of the Christian Church at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It conjures up images of people who dwell morbidly upon real or imagined wrongdoing in their past, who indulge in guilt trips or in self-flagellation (literal or metaphorical).

But genuine Christian penitence does not dwell on the past. On the contrary, it looks to the future; it focuses on the vision of God’s peaceable kingdom as presented by Jesus (and, for Franciscans, echoed in the life of Francis). And the penitent’s approach to that vision is neatly summed up by Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’