on 15 August 2008
Mystery and adventure in an intriguing alternate future, on an alien world.
Where Thomas Harlan's first fantasy series comprised the Alternate History 'Oath of Empire', his new 'Sixth Sun' saga, of which Wasteland of Flint is the first, is set in an alternate future.
What could have been a standard space opera is given a number of distinct and original dimensions, the most obvious being the domination of Human Space by the Méxica Empire, the descendants of the Aztecs. Humanity is now subject to the Méxica and their allies, foremost being the Japanese Nisei, who in colonising North America many centuries ago, brought horses, rice and metalworking to the New World. After a century of war in the Core of Human Space the defeated populations of the European Great Powers - Swedish-Russia and the Danish Empire have mostly scattered to the Rim World colonies.
All of Old Earth, Anáhuac as the Méxica name it, is now ruled from the imperial centre of Tenochtitlán. One interpretation of the name Méxica has it denoting the centre of the world, and in this reality the ambition of the Aztecs has found full expression. Human Space, however, is a small sphere compared with the gigantic scale of the galaxy, and the interstellar domain of Imperial Méxica is a minor power in a universe littered with remnants of inimical and ancient alien civilisations.
The basic premise of the story is familiar. The presentation and expression of it in Wasteland of Flint is sufficiently different to make the novel fresh and, as the questions mount up, a page turner.
What prevents the novel from being a rehash of the old haunted house in space is both the historical background and the gradual dawning of the realisation of the nature of the mystery.
Just as Oath of Empire rested on a substratum of Greek and Persian Myth, Sixth Sun has aspects of Aztec mythology hidden beneath it, as well as hints that might tenuously relate to the Cthulhu Mythos. Certain vague resonances stirred memories of HP Lovecraft's 'At the Mountains of Madness' and 'The Call of Cthulhu'. Other dimensions of the story also reminded me very slightly of Tim Power's 'Declare' and the Babylon 5 television series and its IPX archaeologists "Exploring the Past to make a better Future."
This is not to say that Wasteland of Flint is derivative, it isn't. At most, aspects of the novel pay homage to these and earlier Golden Age sources.
Contact has been lost with a commercial archaeology team conducting excavations on Ephesus III on the edge of known space. The Company redirects the xeno archaeologist Gretchen Anderssen and her team, uneasily supported by the crew of the IMN Cornuelle to recover the missing starship and her crew. Also aboard is the Méxica political officer and judge Green Hummingbird, who demonstrates both the traditions of a shaman and a disturbing fore knowledge of events. When the Cornuelle arrives it finds the ship in orbit, utterly deserted, and the desperate ground crew still alive. One geologist is missing. Ephesus III itself is something of a mystery: its geology is utterly jumbled with a massive mountain chain, the Escarpment running from pole to pole with some of the peaks rising above the thin atmosphere. Fossils found on the planet show early recognisable creatures, but they are totally unrelated to the weird primitive life forms now present. All the signs suggest that the planet suffered a catastrophe several million years before, in a period when the enigmatic First Sun civilisation was active in the galaxy.
Gradually the pieces of the puzzle accumulate. The initial suggestion of a murder mystery driven by academic rivalry is replaced by something much vaster and more dangerous. The background of the characters lend conflict to the story, as the disparate characters have to work together to prevent disaster. The dynamic between the scientist and the heir of Aztec sorcerers becomes a major focus, as the two main protagonists, entirely different in status and worldview are forced into an uneasy alliance against the hostile environment of Ephesus III itself. The landscape of Ephesus III is vividly drawn, and its wind-etched canyons and weird rock outcrops give a strong impression of an alien world. Glimpses of yawning gulfs of time and long dead alien civilisations offer a counterpoint to the very immediate struggle for survival.
The central mystery of the planet is ultimately revealed. But for every answer, more intriguing questions are raised, for this, although a standalone story, is the introduction to the saga of the Sixth Sun. According to Aztec myth, the previous five Suns ended in disaster. Future novels will doubtless describe and address the fate of the Sixth Sun.
The third book in the series, 'Land of the Dead' is in progress (with the first few chapters available on the author's wiki: thronewiki) and should be published next year.
on 22 September 2006
This is an intriguing archaeological mystery, set in an alternate future where the Aztecs (supported by the Japanese) rule on Earth and several different kinds of aliens wait in the wings.
Ephesus III is an apparently empty world, but investigation soon shows that it was *Terra*formed by a former civilisation, some 3 million years in the past. Suddenly the "Palenque", the support ship for the investigators, goes dead and an Imperial Naval vessel is sent to find out what has happened.
Although the science isn't yet real, you feel that it could be possible and that makes this one good read!
on 6 March 2006
I'm not mentioning the plot, as learning it is one of the joys of this book. Although described as an 'alternate history' that part of the background is blended so well you won't even realise that you're learning both Mexica and Japanese as you progress through the story. I can't recommend this (and House of Reeds - it's indirect sequel) enough. It contains no padding, no unnecessary character tivia and is superbly written throughout.
on 30 October 2011
This is a fine book. It has no pretensions to affecting literary grandeur, for entertainment is its raison d'être, but if you wish to entertain you must have believable, sympathetic characters, imagination, and a worthy antagonist. Here we have 'em all in spades, with great economy of writing - there is almost no wasted verbiage - and I recommend this book. The only thing preventing it from getting the full five stars is that the last third is a little spoiled by some silly mysticism. It fits well into the story and does move things along, but I would have prefered a more rational methodology from the characters.