Wasteland of Flint Mass Market Paperback – 1 Apr 2004
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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.
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!
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Called upon to reveal to the readers the elusive secrets of Ephesus 3 is one Gretchen Anderssen, a talented young xenoarcheologist with more than her share of backbone, a trait that will serve her well in this assignment. Directed to Ephesus 3 to investigate an accident that has befallen the Palenque, an exploration ship in orbit around Ephesus, the Anderssen character immediately brings the new Mexica social order into play for the reader. Anderssen is the future equivalent of a disenfranchised minority, a person of Swedish decent; we learn that the Swedes, final opponents of Mexica's bid to take over Earth in its entirety, have been banished to other planets and are now treated as second-class citizens. The resulting social tension between Swede and Aztec is painted well enough by Harlan that it survives the duration of the story, and begins the process of depicting the complicated social order in Harlan's universe. As the pages turn, the setting becomes increasingly compelling, and the underlying social interplay is a sub theme that adds an important and colorful dimension to the novel.
As powerful a character as Gretchen becomes, she often plays second fiddle to a number of rich and interesting secondary characters. My personal favorite is Magdalena, a Hesht (a feline alien species). Cat-aliens have always seemed to me to be a bit cliché in contemporary science fiction (plus, I'm more of a dog person), but "Maggie" is a cut above. Maggie's character literally flies off the pages, drawing on many layers of development to become a compelling supporting character. I was fond of the imagery surrounding Maggie's mannerisms -- in particular her claws and several amusing nervous habits.
Green Hummingbird, an Imperial Mexica judge, begins as a minor character, but develops into a surprisingly powerful one, and is an important tool for the reader to learn about Mexica. Gretchen and Green Hummingbird form an improbable, but highly effective team through which Harlan tells much of his story. Hadeishi, a Japanese ship captain and his first officer also form an interesting and rich subplot that I enjoyed quite a bit. Finally, it's difficult to know whether to consider the elusive scientist, Russovsky, a character or not, but she is extremely intriguing, and not like any other character I can ever remember reading about. If nothing else, she is a moving metaphor for the pieces of ourselves that we leave behind when we're gone.
The characters come to life amid crisp and readable dialogue and a compelling social backdrop. At the same time, Harlan shows his mastery of imagery in both subtle and dramatic settings, making the text very enjoyable to read. For me, he successfully brought together many difficult elements of a top-notch story: a truly compelling setting, a meaningful and agile plot, strong characters and gripping writing that depicts powerful and satisfying images. This is as good a novel as I've read in quite a while. I enjoyed it thoroughly and can't wait for the next in the series. I give this effort five stars; you won't regret the time or money spent on this book.
It was very enjoyable to read about Gretchen's earlier adventures as a xeno-archaeologist.In some ways the book reminded me of the short-lived tv series Crusade. Good space opera can be hard to find these days.
Others would have reviewed the plot so I'll just say that Wasteland of Flint has a cast of good characters, an engaging story cum mystery and some well defined aliens along with the human characters. The fact that it is set in an alternate universe where Western civilisation isn't on top is kind of the icing on the cake.
Some alternate universe stories can be hard to relate to, I had no trouble becoming involved with the story and characters of Wasteland of Flint.
The alternate history part is, the Aztec conquered the world (and, as a rather odd side note, apparently separate, Jesus had a sister, who is as revered as the the Virgin Mother is). But the story takes place enough into the future in space exploration that all of that is background, and the main plot is secret weapons from previous galactic empires gone for millions of years. The way that Aztec mythology colors the people's way of thinking is interesting, as are the racial conflicts- the Nisei and Skawts (yes, that's Scots) retained more of their independence than most other cultures, while the English are nonexistent (the Duchy of Kent is an area of Skawtland) - the main languages (besides Nahuatl) are Norman and Japanese. If you are, as I am, interested in the development of languages, and comparisons between existing languages from their roots, you'll have fun with this. There doesn't seem to be any Italy, nor any remnants of Latin as a language, which I found interesting; there are people who are Maltese, and I'm wondering if that includes Italy rather than just the island of Malta in our universe. A lack of a Rome, to spread its version of Christianity, would explain some of the reasons that Europe is less warlike than others, and would explain no Spaniards and Portuguese conquering the New World. Teasing this sort of thing out from the background scenery is fun.
Suprisingly, the mystical elements didn't bother me much, even though I am not a big fantasy fan nor do I think much of psychic powers or mind reading. I didn't find them obtrusive, and some of the seemingly mystical stuff was given a plausible cover of drugs. I guess my attitude is that in this book it's easy enough to ignore them; one could skip over the shamanistic stuff lightly and still enjoy the vast majority of the book, and not miss any major plot elements.
A few little inconsistencies but nothing that really interrupts the flow of believing in the possibility of this history (for example, we alternate randomly between spelling Tukhachevsky's nationality as Russian and Rossiyan).
Incidentally, another reviewer mentioned that they hadn't read any other Aztec alt-histories; I recommend L. Neil Smith's _The Crystal Empire_ as one such, if you enjoy the idea. It's very different from this book, but quite a good complement, two very different possibilities. There are several other alt-hists where the Aztecs are still a major world power albeit not the world's rulers; if I can find them in our house (family motto: I know it's in here *somewhere*) I will do a List of them for your reading pleasure.
A few other incidentals which some people may want to know about: yes there are aliens, but they are not a major part of the plot, although one such is one of our main characters. No, there's almost no romance, and no sex scenes at all - many space operas have a large helping of romance, but this isn't one of them. No, we don't have any major scenes of bloody violence, no giant gun battles in outer space nor hand to hand combat on the ground; the war here is cultural, and such bad guys as there are, are not total evil villians; resolution of that subplot is interesting but does not depend on armies and strength of weapons. Which is, when you think about it, rather unusual for space opera.
Last but not least, a sequel is in the works; a very short excerpt from it is in the back of the book. I plan to buy it!
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