5 stars for the narrative, 4 stars for its emotional impact on me
My reading habits seem to be evolving. Again. I'm veering away from most fantasy and immersing myself more in science fiction. I'm increasingly restless, requiring books that command my full attention. I've become quite the masochistic reader-- reveling in narratives that make my brain hurt, expanding it beyond familiar and comfortable limits. Perhaps the brain is like the stomach, increasing brain food intake results in a gain in brain capacity.
Like FILARIA, this tale exists in a multilevel world, functioning independently but ultimately interconnected. The perceived gods reside beyond the clouds and have not made an appearance for many years. The tree dwellers reside above the clouds, thinking the worst of whatever exists below. The city of Nowy Solum is a world beneath the clouds. The narrative shifts back and forth between levels through key residents. There are also a few time shifts.
Nowy Solum is ruled by the chatelaine, though she really has little interest in ruling and more zeal for the pursuit of debauched pleasures. She rules only because her father passed on the responsibility preferring, instead, isolation and freedom to conduct his atrocious experiments. Nowy Solum society is divided between the red-blooded hemos and the black-blooded kholics, the latter group tattooed at birth, ostracized and relegated to perform the dirtiest, menial tasks, a type of untouchables. Nahid and Octavia are noteworthy kholics, not entirely suited for their station in life but victims of it nonetheless.
Path is severely disabled, incapable of most simple tasks, until a vision caused him to start evolving into something new and urged him to leave everything familiar, ending in Nowy Solum with little left of who he was.
The people of the tree settlement are faithful people, with established rituals and strict rules for living. Padre hornblower is a man of stature, a religious elder chosen by one of his gods for an impossible task. Pan Renik was exiled by the tree dwellers, forced to scrounge a meager existence, forever lamenting his misfortunes, until the day an opportunity literally landed in front of him. His spontaneous action sets events in motion that will change not just his corner of the world.
The gods who have not been seen for many years and consequently reduced to mythological figures are suddenly making their presence felt, heralding their likely reappearance. They may just give the people a glimpse of their true nature.
There is so much eloquence in this book. I constantly had to resist highlighting or I'd have ended up with more highlighted text than not. There is a lyrical quality to the way Brent Hayward describes places and time and thought processes. He is a poet, a philosopher, a sophist.
I won't pretend this is an easy book to read, a book you can speed through or skim. Even reading carefully, I often had to pause to discern and digest what I just read. This science fiction offering with definite fantasy and new weird elements deals with social inequality, discrimination, the excesses of the powerful, the whims of the gods, the deification of the unfamiliar, the dangers of divining the desires of gods. It explores identity, how people are often defined by the gratuitous nature of birth and how it limits the possibility of self-determination. Some boundaries are more fluid than others. Some actions really do reverberate throughout existence.
I appreciate how Hayward uncompromisingly writes the book he wants to write. He creates his own comprehensive mythology. I cannot imagine he's unaware of the challenging nature of his books. It likely makes them less accessible but also more rewarding the moment the blueprint he has carefully laid out for you becomes visible. He is a reserved storyteller, withholding the nexus until the very last moment. He jumps back and forth between settings and characters with unwavering trust in your ability to keep abreast. Each thread of the story is unique and fascinating though seemingly disparate and unconnected. When all the moving parts have been independently introduced, Hayward assembles them into a cohesive, fully functioning mechanism.
I cannot deny the masterful writing. It didn't, however, have the emotional impact of FILARIA. For the most part, I admired the story as if from a distance, an almost sterilized or clinical appreciation. Right about the sixty percent mark though, I started to feel more of an emotional connection to the characters, engendering sympathy. There was a revelation that sparked emotional involvement. The ending had a poignant finality but it also left much room to ponder the future of the characters as well as their world. The weighty societal issues and matters of faith that permeate this story are certainly conducive to further reflection.
Considering the foregoing, there really isn't much more anyone can demand from a story. I am looking forward to the next challenging Brent Hayward book. My brain needs to recover in the meantime.