A review of Irenicon by Aidan Harte (Jo Fletcher Books, 2012) – originally published in Interzone
Irenicon is the debut novel of Aidan Harte, a Dublin-based sculptor, and the first volume in a projected trilogy of novels set in Etruria, an alternate medieval Italy. A ragtag of warring city states is steadily falling to the technological superiority of the Concordian Empire. All that stands in the way of Concordian ambitions is a river of their own making, a divided city, and a small mercenary army. The river in question is the Irenicon of the title and it literally divides Etruria in two. It also divides the city of Rasenna in two: The northern half is controlled by the Bardini family, while their rivals the Morellos govern the southern half. Only 16-year-old Sofia Scaligeri, heir to the title contessa of Rasenna, can hope to unite the warring factions. When the story opens, she is the ward of the head of the Bardini family and has a love-hate relationship with Gaetano, son of the head of the Morello family.
Into this unstable mix steps Giovanni, a young Concordian engineer. He has been sent to build a bridge across the Irenicon to further Concordian ambitions in the south. But he sees it as a chance to gain redemption for his part in certain Concordian atrocities. And to some of the people of Rasenna, the bridge comes as an opportunity to reunite their divided city.
This is a fantastic piece of world-building by someone with a real feel for renaissance Italy. The world and its inhabitants are lovingly described, as is the divided society of Rasenna.
The most obvious fantastical element in the novel is the river Irenicon. It was created by the arcane engineering of the Concordian Empire to divide Rasenna, destroying its ability to act as a focus of resistance to Concord. That the river is quite unnatural is highlighted by two things: it flows uphill, and it is home to sentient elemental spirits called buio. (By the way, the name of the river is a nice piece of irony since an irenicon is a message of peace.)
Another important element in the story is the author’s adaptation of Christianity. In this world, Jesus died in the massacre of the innocents. Instead of medieval Catholicism we have a religion in which the grieving Madonna is the central figure.
Harte has also invented a couple of engaging martial arts. There is the very public Art Banderia of which the ruling families of Rasenna are masters. Essentially he has taken the Italian art of flag tossing and turned it into a martial art. But there is also a shadowy and far more deadly martial art, the Water Style, practised by an order of nuns and the rulers of Concordia. This is much more like a traditional oriental martial art, and I must admit I was not convinced by its appearance in a version of medieval Italy.
Harte’s characters are very engaging. All the major characters in his large cast have their own distinctive voices, and many of the minor characters are also memorable. One thing that did concern me at first was the dialogue: Harte has adopted the recent practice of imposing modern dialogue on a medieval setting. Usually I find this kind of anachronism irritating, but the storytelling, characterization, and world-building are so good that I soon forgot about this issue.
There is no lack of action once the story gets going. However, he does begin at a fairly leisurely pace, carefully sketching in the details of the world in which the action will be set. It is very much a novel of two parts: Part I focuses more on the world-building, while Part II feels much more like a martial arts action story superimposed upon a medieval setting.
To sum up: Harte is a brilliant new voice in historical fantasy, and this is quite simply the best piece of fantasy that I have read so far this year.