(2011) Jaine Fenn, Gollancz, £12.99, trdpbk, 402pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09695-0
This is the fourth novel in the series begun with Principles of Angels, Consort of Heaven, and Guardians of Paradise, all of which I have reviewed for SF2 Concatenation. Of the three, I enjoyed the first one the most. We’re following a small group of talented individuals who believe that the semi-mythical Sidhe, who once lived among and ruled humanity, are still around and active; and the nearer we get to them, the less awe-inspiring they appear. We now know that male and female Sidhe have been sundered by warfare for generations; and from Consort of Heaven that the female Sidhe have been breeding humans for selected talents on Serenein, an isolated world with a mediaeval culture, ruled by supposed goddesses at the top of a space elevator. Like a blend of Dune’s Guild Navigators and Anne McCaffrey’s Brain Ships, Sidhe brains are needed to navigate Starships through hyperspace.
The story began with Taro, a surgically modified assassin on a world of pedestal cities, ruled by ‘Ministers’ who are fragments of male Sidhe consciousness. We go back to that world, briefly, and Taro revisits his old haunts on the underside of the city (still the most imaginative of Jaine Fenn’s settings), but only from the outside – it’s an underworld from which he’s now excluded. To link Serenein to interstellar civilisation, a beacon has to be obtained. Only the male Sidhe can provide one, and it turns out that the beacons too need Sidhe brains in them. Far from being extinct, the Sidhe are everywhere!
As this scenario develops, it becomes ever harder to distinguish between Sidhe and humans with special talents; one of the major characters is Nual, a rebel female Sidhe with a human lover, fighting against her former colleagues but apparently with a normal range of human emotions. In the planetary system where the male Sidhe have taken refuge, the biggest problem is they’re divided into sects and factions, all of whom want to interrogate her because none of them trust the others – much as one might imagine an all-male human society to be.
When the heroes’ starship materialises in that system, at first all they can see is an orange glare out of which they’re apparently being fired on. It turns out that they’ve just punched a hole in a lightsail, whose owners are understandably peeved. This is one of the most vivid episodes in the book, though its only purpose is to give us a glimpse of the subservient rôles which humans play in the Sidhe-dominated system. Still more subservient are the synthetic humanoids which act as avatars for fragments of the consciousnesses of distant Sidhe. The analogy with the status of humans on Serenein is obvious, and underlined by frequent cutting to the plight of women there as the society dominated by priests and fake goddesses begins to come apart – but it’s hard to work up much feeling for the avatars, when even the personalities they develop when cut off from their masters are fragmentary.
The feeling of detachment formed in those episodes continues through the action thereafter. Initially the visitors to the Sidhe system are isolated in an artificial habitat, until it’s rammed by a mining barge under the direction of a dissident faction of males. There follow an out-of-the-ecliptic transfer to the hub of the system, a crash landing on a mining colony which has reverted to savagery when the Sidhe lost interest, missions to retrieve Taro and Nual after abduction, snatching the beacon, and space battles over Serenein, destroying female Sidhe’s ships with their own weapons on the space elevator top. It ought to be red-hot action, but we are curiously distanced from it, with characters watching the events on screens or describing them while their perceptions are hooked into machines. At the end of the novel, Serenein is still isolated, with its new beacon functional only for voice communication; and as a reader, I felt rather the same way.
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