Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Promise of the Child - Tom Toner

The Promise of the Child is a debut sci-fi novel by Tom Toner. It’s a sprawling, multi-faceted work, taking place across a multiplicity of imaginative spaces, from multiple viewpoints. It’s a grand space opera, and if it occasionally falters under the weight of ambition, it’s certainly asking interesting questions.

The universe in which the narrative exists is a vast one, composed of interstellar kingdoms, or “Solar Satrapies”. These kingdoms are themselves the preserve of transhuman species. Genetic drift and deliberate manipulation over millennia has effectively turned humanity into different versions of itself; from the towering, multi-hued Melios , to the more averagely formed Amaranthine. In a structure more than a little reminiscent of the decaying Roman Empire, the Amaranthine rule these satrapies, from a distant Earth. They are biologically immortal, and hold control through manipulation, social expectation, and the use of mysterious powers gained through age. They’re sometimes capricious, and prone to states of fugue – but also the only individuals left who remember how to form the grander forms of technology that shape their spaces.

They’re surrounded by servants, and their kingdoms are surrounded by the Prism, a more tangled, seemingly lively area of space, filled with the energy of the dispossessed and the no-longer oppressed. Each time the Amaranthine use one of the Prism empires to fend off another, they lose a little more of their power and influence, and the narrative shows us a grand galactic society on the verge of change – perhaps for the better, perhaps as a catastrophe.

In any event, the sheer variety of environments, people and societies on display here is staggering. Toner has put together a vivid, imaginative universe, which conforms to its own rules. It seems perfectly believable, if, in many aspects, also perfectly appalling. But the surge and crash of humanity, in infinite variation, is on display here, and Toner has built a universe which not only stands up to scrutiny, but is expansive, intriguing, and one I’d rather like to see more of. It does take a little while to get used to, as the reader is drawn across worlds and characters, from dark jungles with teeming predators to artificial utopia’s within the core of worlds – but getting used to it all is an absolute delight.

The central characters are illuminating. I was particularly interested in Sotiris, an Amaranthine immortal, used to operating in longer timescales and perhaps at a slower pace than might be expected. But his thoughts on the rise of the Amaranthine provided some much needed context, and his clear love for his sister, and for old friends, added a sympathetic layer to a man embroiled in politics and treachery. Sotiris is insightful, careful, and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Lycaste is, if not his opposite, certainly somewhere else in the spectrum. When we first see him, he is living on one of the provinces of Earth, in an existence where it seems his every need is catered for. He is reclusive, nervous, and carries  a torch for one of the other inhabitants of his region. Lycaste’s portrayal is convincing, and his social anxiety feels particularly on point. As the narrative shifts, Lycaste changes with it, but at every turn, his growth – or at least his change – in character feels organic and plausible, and the man himself continues  to seem a fully formed personality.

Both men are assisted by an enormous cast of side characters, some with larger parts than others. Over the course of the text I found myself sympathising with different sides, switching allegiances, laughing with some characters, and preparing a deadly enmity with others – and if those that appeared fleetingly had less time on the stage, still they told their stories well, and felt like a real, immersive part of the elaborate universe that Toner has concocted.

As ever, I won’t go into spoilers with the plot. However, there’s rather a lot of it. The initial pacing is somewhat slow, as the universe and characters are unfolded for the reader. Things do pick up, especially in the more politically focused segments – and there is always something going on. The pacing works for the story being told, and lets the lyrical prose wash over the reader well, and give them room to get a handle on things; by the last third of the text, things have shifted up a gear, and there’s some wonderfully drawn action scenes, largely of depredation and destruction. The quieter first half of the book works as a means of comparison. There’s two large strands to the plot – one around Lycaste, as he discovers himself and the world around him, and the other around Sotiros, as he deals with the byzantine manoeuvrings of the Amaranthine. Switching between the two also moved the pacing nicely – and both journeys were compelling, for different reasons. I’d say, don’t go in expecting laser battles on every page – but the slow buildup absolutely pays off, and the overall story is at once convincing and, for sequel purposes, intriguing.

This one is absolutely worth picking up. The world is beautifully drawn, and the characters held my interest throughout, whilst feeling quite distinct. The plot really does deliver on the early build-up, and I think the series will be one to watch.

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