Be careful what you wish for…
The more optimistic end of SF writing often envisages advanced and enlightened aliens
arriving to bless mankind with wondrous technological advances, and offering the brightest
and best the chance of a new life among the stars. Well, that’s what’s happened here.
Better yet, for those who’ve always wished for psychic and magic powers, such fantasies are now reality, thanks to nanotechnology seeded among us.
But as with his previous writing, James Alan Gardner takes on favourite genre themes and gives them his own thought-provoking twist throughout the course of the novel.
To begin with, life is not actually so splendid for those left on an Earth now bereft of those aforementioned brightest and best. The beneficent aliens of the League of Peoples have put the mysterious Spark Lords in charge who are quite content to rule the roost with their own advanced technology, while leaving everyone else struggling among the decaying remnants of the OldTech. “Computers serve as footstools while the rusted remains
of jumbo jets get converted to beerhalls and brothels”. Everyday power is in the hands of quasi-feudal families or criminal gangs, both of whom are keen to enslave any psychics or magicians who might prove useful in their rivalries.
The engaging protagonist of the book, Philemon Abu Dhubhai comes from one of those powerful families. But, while bright enough, he lacks any real drive so finds himself teaching at the Feliss Academy, where the students are “rich second-raters who wouldn’t recognise excellence if it bit them on the silk-covered ass.” His friends and fellow teachers are a curious group of similar misfits. The Steel Caryatid is a fire mage who suffers from an incurable case of the premonitions thanks to an accident during a necromantic ritual involving two tubs of lard and a hand puppet. Sir Pelinor claims to be a knight of the realm and plays the role to the hilt, longing for a quest as he spends his days as academy swordmaster, even if the others suspect he’s just a retired border guard. Sister Impervia belongs to an order of martial nuns straight out of a teenage boy’s hormonal longings while Myoko who looks so harmless, is a psychic who could curl your hair at twenty paces. We first meet this happy gang in a bar room brawl, the first of several instances where an ostensibly SF novel has a great deal of fun with the conventions of the fantasy end of the genre as well as certain role-playing games.
After this entertaining night out, Philemon finds one of the FA students isn’t going to recognise excellence or anything else ever again, on account of being mysteriously and rather stomach-churningly dead. As her teacher, he has to find out just what happened,
a task complicated by that fact that the dead girl’s mother is a powerful crime boss. That would be bad enough but it soon becomes apparent that various aliens are involving themselves in Earth’s affairs, and not in a good way. The quest for the truth and the killer gathers pace, bowling along with wry humour as well as periodically screeching to a halt when some deathly serious turn of events sends Philemon and his companions in a whole new direction. For good and ill, by the end of this highly recommended book,
there’s no going back for any of them.
This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.