on 13 February 2015
Fantasy and science fiction are genres that mesh well together. Some authors have written successfully across both genres, but not usually in the same story. Jaine Fenn has managed to combine both in one book and it's an interesting read.
One night, a stranger is found lying unconscious in a bog just outside the village of Dangwern. He appears to have come from nowhere and, apart from a strange piece of cloth lying near his naked body, there is nothing to suggest who he is or where he came from. Unfortunately, this includes the stranger himself, as he is suffering from amnesia and has no idea even where he is, much less how he came to be there.
Fortunately for Sais, as he is nicknamed, the boy who finds him is "sky touched". This means he is soon to travel to the City of Lights to be tested to see if he is worthy of being a consort of the goddesses. The village elders permit Sais and the boy's mother Kerin to accompany him to see if anyone there may recognise Sais or shed some light on his past.
The story begins as a fairly standard fantasy novel, with many of the usual elements you would expect to find. There are difficult living conditions, many conforming to old and impoverished ways of living by modern standards, which fantasy novels often thrive on. There are also all powerful gods, respected by all, and a journey to a major city from the edges of the world to seek knowledge not available elsewhere. There is a quest, one of the characters is special in a certain way the provides challenges as well as uses and others are battling adversity and unpopularity thanks to their past and hoping to become more than they are.
Most of this is fairly predictable and obvious enough and usually you would be able to see where the story would end up. But this is as far as the clichés go, as once Sais starts to recover his memory, it soon becomes obvious that Kerin's worldview isn't how it should be. From her point of view, worse news is to come in that her son's fate is not the glorious future everyone has been led to believe it would be. This means that the priests of the world are in for an even bigger shock than the average believers. As Sais' true identity comes back to him, the story adds some science fiction type elements that never looked likely from the beginnings of the story and the book edges away from the standard fantasy type tale as the two genres collide and settle down quite comfortably together.
Apart from the clashing of genres, one aspect of the story that is done particularly well here is the character and plot development. With Sais being an amnesiac stranger, he is completely unaware of the world he finds himself in, knowing nothing of their religion or their ways of life. This means that the reader has a character in their shoes; on the outside, looking in and starting from scratch and the necessity of explaining everything to Sais in very simple terms benefits the reader hugely, as it provides a very basic introduction to the world. With this fitting in so well to the story, it never seems forced or unnatural and it is the kind of introduction that very few novels provide. In return, Sais introduces new thinking to the people he meets and this helps the genres mesh a lot better, as the reader gets both explained in simple terms as they are explained to characters who simply wouldn't understand otherwise.
In much the same way, being a complete stranger helps with the character development. No-one knows anything about the other, so when a certain person reacts to a character in a particular way, based on a past the reader knows nothing about, it needs to be explained to Sais, with his knowledge growing alongside the reader's. Indeed, Sais knows very little about even himself and his voyage of rediscovery is slow and gradual, allowing both us and the other characters to learn about his past as he goes. This allows for a gradual and natural introduction to the characters which, again, is rarely present in other books of this type.
Whilst this gentle build up does work well for the character and plot development, it does mean that the pace of the story is a little slow for my personal tastes. There is a long journey to be made and a lot to learn about the world and the characters and whilst this is all necessary for the story, it does seem to take quite some time. As the story reaches a climax, things move a lot quicker and the contrast between the two parts is made even more evident by the ending, which seems to happen in a bit of a rush, making the opening seem even slower by comparison.
These things aside, though, it is a book that provides plenty of entertainment. The basic idea and the meshing of the genres works very well and the character development and the way that is accomplished is certainly better than in many such books. The pacing may be a little uneven, but whilst this is a minor annoyance, the aspects of the book that set it apart from many across both genres are ultimately what win out and make this a curious, but worthwhile read.
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It is a time of tribulation for Kerin. Discriminated against in her village for the circumstances of her birth, her son Damaru is skytouched and will soon be blessed by being raised to the ranks of the Consorts. Events are complicated by the discovery of an unconscious man in the mere outside the village. As Kerin helps him regain his health, his memory comes back in fits and starts...and indicates that Kerin's world and everything she knows may be a lie.
Consorts of Heaven is the second novel in Jaine Fenn's Hidden Empire sequence (which currently stands at four books, with a fifth out this year). It is not a follow-up to Principles of Angels, instead taking place roughly simultaneously with it but in a different part of the galaxy. It can be read independently of the first volume. The first novel was more overtly SF, with a dash of the New Weird added to it, but this second volume is more akin to traditional fantasy. It's set in a much more primitive world where some people have abilities that seem similar to magic.
As with her first novel, Fenn has created an interesting world based on some solid foundations, and seeing how this lines up with what was established in Principles of Angels can be fun. Also, as with her first novel, Fenn undercuts the premise and fascinating backstory with a fairly indifferent prose style. This is made even worse by featuring some considerably less-interesting characters than the first book. The major protagonists - Kerin, the amnesiac Sais and the priest Einon - have potential, but ultimately end up being fairly straightforward and predictable. The commentary on the planet's problems, such as being in the grip of a religious theocracy and its issues with rampant sexism, also disappointingly never rise above the obvious.
There are a few nice touches. A traditional SF mega-structure turns up later on in an interesting guise and, despite the primitive setting, we get a lot more information on how the basics of Fenn's SF universe work (such as how FTL is employed in the setting). But ultimately the novel, whilst certainly not disastrous, is not as engaging as its predecessor.
Consorts of Heaven (***) is available now in the UK and USA.