So, I had this e-mail from Tom Toner in January 2017 asking me if I wouldn’t mind reviewing this, ‘The Promise of The Child’. I was in two minds about this as, being a generally kind sort of person, I was worried that, if I hated the novel, I would have to post a negative review. This has happened before, and I’m sure that I feel far worse about it than the authors involved who no doubt take bad reviews as part of the job and aren’t likely to track me down and give me a good kicking. They haven’t as yet, but I guess there’s still time.
My fears, it transpires, were groundless, as this is probably one of the best debut novels I have encountered since Alistair Reynolds’ ‘Revelation Space‘, which it resembles in some senses. Others have compared it to Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’ , Jack Vance, Moorcock, M John Harrison and various others who have pursued a somewhat baroque exploration of SF. The style has a fascinating history which extends back beyond Moorcock to Vance, Charles L Harness, Leigh Brackett, and beyond there to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Clark Ashton Smith. One is impressed to see it so freshly reinvented.
Some twelve and a half thousand years from now, Humanity has spread out into the galaxy, finding no other life (barring the one glaring discovery of two incredibly ancient corpses of what appear to be sentient dinosaurs preserved in the icy cold of the outer Solar System.).
All life outside of Earth is descended from that of Earth, and Humanity itself has splintered into various species which exist in a complex hierarchical system, at the pinnacle of which are the immortal Amaranthine.
The narrative follows several key figures. Lycaste is a Melius, a larger human form that can change the colour of its skin. Lycaste lives in what we presume to be a far future Cyprus, and is famous for being – at least in Melius terms – beautiful. Lycaste is a sensitive individual, deeply in love with Pentas, although the love is unreturned. His life is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a Plenipotentiary, Callisthemon, a noble of a higher caste who is, he claims, carrying out a census. Pentas’ attraction to Callisthemon leads inexorably to an event which causes Lycaste to flee on a journey across the Old World.
Sotiris, originally himself from Greece, is one of the most ancient Amaranthine and suffering from a condition to which the older immortals are prone; a succumbing to delusions. There is strife among the Amaranthine. Traditionally their leader is the oldest of them, and a Pretender, Aaron, has arisen who claims to be older than any living immortal.
War is spreading across the Old World, a war in which Sotiris is a principle manipulator, and in which Lycaste gets unwilling involved.
Meanwhile, a machine which could potentially threaten the balance of power across the galaxy has been stolen and, along with its kidnapped creator, is being shipped between the stars through hostile territory.
This is, it has to be said, a work which demands concentration. Much like Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’, there are some elements only partly explained, at least at first, which the general reader will either recognise or hopefully pick up on later, such as the vaulted worlds. These are essentially planet-sized Dyson spheres, hollowed out worlds with an artificial sun at the centre. One also has to contend with the various branched off species of Humanity, the baroque and complex societies and their equally complex political and social dynamics. It does however reward careful reading.
There are some devices which are hard to justify under rational science, such as the Amaranthine’s ability to bilocate using a planet’s magnetic field, apparently because of the build up of iron in an ancient body. The Shell, or The Soul Machine, has an even flimsier rationale for its operation, although these are minor quibbles.
One would have expected the presence of some form of Artificial Intelligence but, as with Dune (another baroque series infested with aristocratic class levels) there is a prohibition against creating such things although this becomes an important issue much later and explains some aspects of the earlier narrative.
Toner manages to convey a sense of languid and wistful decadence which pervades the novel, reminiscent of that of Vance’s ‘Dying Earth‘ and Harrison’s ‘Viriconium‘ sequence. The Old World is divided into rigid divisions of class and race, where everyone it seems has learned to know their place. One can also see a sense of Moorcockian entropy in this ancient society with its arcane rules and casual cruelty.
There is a very interesting scene where Callisthemon, the higher level Plenipotentiary visiting Lycaste’s region. discovers that one of Lycaste’s friends and neighbours is gay, although the term is never employed. Pentas enquires of him whether men can love each other in Callisthemon’s region. Callisthemon appears both amused and horrified by the idea, implying that it would never happen, and insists on changing the subject when he is pressed for an answer. It’s a very subtle moment, but it neatlly clarifies for the reader what form of society Callisthemon represents, as is indeed shown in later events.
Lycaste and Sotiris, despite some excursions to follow events and characters elsewhere, are the central two characters, and one could possibly argue that this is to the detriment of the other players. Some, without giving too much away, are unexpectedly despatched.just as one thought they were going to play a major role in the story.
It’s a tad vexing that other reviews I have seen posted have noted that they read (whatever) percent of the book and gave up. If this is the case, why post a review? It helps nobody, and one can’t be expected to provide a valid judgment having only read a tenth or a fifth of someone’s work. I would suggest that the author cannot be held responsible for other people’s laziness, although that may well be an oversimplification of the situation. There will always be occasions when one starts a book and realises that one is never going to finish it. One really has to ask the question, is it the book’s fault?
In this case, I don’t think it is. As a society we have learned to be spoonfed and we tend to shy away from entertainment (particularly books) that might be slightly challenging. This is challenging, but that’s not the book’s fault. If you can’t get into it, don’t blame the book. Move on. Find something you like.