A review of Warring States by Aidan Harte (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013) – originally published in Interzone
Warring States is the second volume of Aidan Harte’s Wave Trilogy. Its predecessor, Irenicon, was a very accomplished debut novel and for me one of the most memorable books of 2012. So, as you can imagine, I have been waiting impatiently for the next instalment.
Harte has not disappointed me. There are several important continuities between the volumes, which ensure that Warring States is as satisfying as Irenicon. For a start there is the same engaging prose. Then there is the complex world-building: he continues to develop his fascinating, and at times disturbing, riff on Renaissance Italy while adding into the mix his own take on Byzantium and the Kingdom of Acre. So with this second instalment a much bigger picture is gradually unfolding. And this bigger picture gives him a larger canvas for his vivid descriptions: there are new cities to explore, and the dangers of the Middle Sea and the Desert of Oltremare to be braved.
He begins this episode by backtracking to tell the back stories of Torbidda, a low class Concordian boy who rises to become First Apprentice of Concord in the wake of the events in Irenicon, and Leto, Torbidda’s ally who becomes the head of Concord’s armed forces. Harte’s ability to develop complex and convincing characters is worth mentioning here. With Torbidda, he has achieved the very difficult feat of depicting how Concord’s education system turns him into a cold-blooded murderer while portraying him in such a way that reader still finds him sympathetic. Part II picks up the story of Sofia Scaligeri, the central character of Irenicon, and traces her flight from Rasenna as she seeks a place of safety for birth of her child. Parts III and IV follow Sofia as she goes first to Ariminum (Harte’s version of Venice) and eventually reaches what she hopes will be the safe haven of Akka. At the same time, he weaves into Sofia’s story the parallel story of Torbidda’s struggles to retain control of Concord, to understand the truth of the Molè, the sinister building designed by Girolamo Bernoulli that dominates Concord, and to resist the Molè’s efforts to manipulate and possess him.
Harte also begins to develop hints from Irenicon that this is part of a much bigger cosmological conflict. It appears that Sofia’s unborn son has a messianic role to play and that the child’s ancient adversary is also seeking to be reborn and is manipulating world events to achieve final victory. The volume concludes with a cliff-hanger, namely, the reappearance in Concord of the messianic child’s ancient enemy.
Having said that Harte’s new volume did not disappoint me, I should mention that I have one or two caveats. This is very much the second volume of a trilogy: Irenicon is essential reading if you wish to understand what is going on. More of a problem is that I felt Warring States to be inconclusive: the story arcs that Harte has created are left hanging in mid-air rather than being given any kind of interim resolution. Taken together with the cliff-hanger ending, I found this more than a little annoying. Unusually, I am prepared to forgive this and give the book a qualified recommendation because of Harte’s accomplished use of language, his clever and complex world-building, and his very satisfying characterization.
In sum, if you haven’t read Irenicon, you should look at it first. If you enjoyed Irenicon, you will certainly want to read Warring States.