Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Against Nature: Four Stars on Goodreads

Well, I was bored...

And another review of
Against Nature, this time as posted on Goodreads on the 30th April by Philip Purser-Hallard, himself a genuinely exceptional author whose own entry into the Faction Paradox canon, Of the City of the Saved... would easily rate amongst my all-time top ten science-fiction novels were I ever to attempt to pin down such a grouping. Whilst it would be untrue to suggest that I might have packed in writing to become a pole dancer had Phil given my novel the thumbs down, it would have nevertheless been a dark day, so this feels somewhat akin to Henry Rollins telling me my band rocks (conditional to some scenario in which I actually have a band):

There are some issues with the use of language in this novel: Lawrence Burton's knowledge of Mexica culture is rich and detailed and his research is meticulous, but Against Nature doesn't work with the reader to allow them to understand it as well as he does. In some ways that's admirable - as a reader I'm always willing to put in some work to understand a book rather than having its meanings handed to me on a plate - but despite the culture's inherent fascinations, the sheer profusion of unfamiliar terms did become a little alienating.

However, it's exactly the same approach taken to the material set among the inhabitants of the Great Houses, which I found much more comprehensible, and indeed to the contemporary US scenes - we're so immersed in the viewpoint of the current primary character that what they see is presented to us with no more explanation than they themselves would need. I'm confident that an early sixteenth-century Mexica cleric or a Homeworlder, if they were somehow able to read the book, would find exactly as much that was baffling about the contemporary sections.

As I say, I don't mind putting in the work to understand a story - it’s a common expectation in SF (see such books as Neuromancer or A Clockwork Orange), and one becomes used to it - but it’s not exactly restful to read. Couple that with the fivefold alternation between what for much of the book are separate plot strands, and a family life which means that I mostly get to read when I'm already tired, and I quite often picked up the book and found that I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I found it quite slow going.

Much of that is to do with my reading habits, though - I'm sure a younger, more intellectually agile reader would have had no issues with it. The one place where I thought this approach seriously compromised the book was in the suggestion that the actions of the various time-active participants had altered the mythology of the Mexica people, since without a comprehensive knowledge of said mythology it was impossible to detect which aspects of the myths depicted had been culturally imperialised.

That's it for the negatives, though. In a more general way, I loved the use of Aztec myth, religion and ritual, and the descriptive tours of Tenochtitlan and its environs, as well as its modern-day counterpart and the connections between the two. The bruja Ultima, with her matter-of-fact approach to ritual magic, was a particularly fine character, but Momacani (the Mexica cleric whose passages are naturally the most steeped in Nahuatl vocabulary) was also reassuringly sympathetic. The play with alternative timelines was fun - not just the revelation about Todd's relationship to Primo, but also the fractured present-day USA in which the former apparently finds himself about halfway through the book.

The book is crammed full of fascinating ideas, in fact, and its plot is wonderfully twisty, yielding up unexpected linkages between its apparently disparate strands, and building up to a climax whose ill-defined, partial and ambiguous nature is entirely in keeping with the book's presentation of the numinous and sacred. The biggest question of all - Goralschai's true intent - is ultimately unanswerable without an insight into the Ordnance-Tetrarch's thought processes which the book denies us, and I felt it was all the more satisfying that way.

I loved the House Meddhoran sections of the book, and their depiction of an alien but codified world being invaded by the weird, irrational and macabre. (From a smugly personal point of view, I was gratified to see that the Great Houses' vocabulary now includes a couple of my own coinages, specifically archemathics and childe.) The eventual humanisation of these childrene whom the Houses have rejected was touchingly done.

It's difficult for me to rank Against Nature in quality with the six previous Faction Paradox novels from Mad Norwegian and Random Static, even leaving my own horse out of the race... but as the first full-length novel Obverse Books have published, it's suitably impressive, and gives me a great deal of confidence in the quality of the range to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment