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.

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