Fiction Reviews

Secrets of the Fire Sea

(2011) Stephen Hunt, HarperVoyager, £17.99, trdpbk, 439pp, trdpbk, ISBN 978-0-007-28963-9

The jacket describes this novel as 'A rollicking tale of murder, mystery, mercenaries and mayhem…' which sounds like a good start. The blurb begins, 'The isolated island of Jago, encircled by the magma ocean of the Fire Sea, faces an uncertain future as its inhabitants emigrate to greener climes, leaving the basalt plains and raging steam storms far behind them.' It reminded me of S. Kye Boult’s mysterious ‘Collision Course’ (Analog, July 1972), set without explanation upon dirigible islands sailing a sea of magma, with humanoid protagonists who might or might not be evolved from ourselves.

Most but not all of the book’s protagonists are human, though their world has other intelligent races of whom the ursines are the most important: intelligent bears who once ruled Jago and hope to reclaim it. (Inevitably, it takes a bit of an effort to force Philip Pullman to the back of one’s mind here.) The technology level of the various cultures is pretty well set by the limitations of Babbage-style mechanical computers, because electricity works only on Jago, and only within a limited radius, as a by-product of the magic which maintains the Fire Sea around the island and the channels of water, like inverse lava tubes, which thread through it. Those who work with the arcane forces of electricity succumb to sores and deformities which at first made me think Jago’s technology was nuclear-powered, but no, it is only magic.

Hannah, the heroine, is a born whiz with electrical computers and destined for a great career, but the odds are rigged to have her selected for a short of manual service in the halls of the guild which keeps Jago running. Immediately that suggests that there is some dangerous knowledge in the computers, and since Hannah’s parents died in a supposed accident in the Fire Sea, we might guess it’s something they have hidden for her to find. Attempts to kill her and the murder of her protecting archbishop strengthen the suspicion, and introduce us to the situation that Jago’s inhabitants are penned up in their cities, under attack by half-human, half-animal monsters that recall Harry Harrison’s Deathworld or Hodgson’s Last Redoubt. Meanwhile, a detective from the Kingdom of Jackals and his steam-powered robot assistant are sent to Jago to investigate the archbishop’s death, carried by a ship’s captain who knows more than he reveals.

That gives us the ‘murder, mystery, mercenaries and mayhem’, but there is much more to it – battles in spirit worlds where the detective is haunted by a badger-headed god, and in a Tron-style cyberspace where the robot searches for data and is hunted by the ‘valve mind’ personalities of previous grand masters now encoded into the machines. As Tom Holt’s quote on the back cover says, 'Hunt’s imagination is probably visible from space. He scatters concepts that other writers would mine for a trilogy like chocolate-bar wrappers.' All true, but the rollicking tale slowed for me on the long overland journey to find the secret of the lost civilization, while invasion forces break through the Fire Sea behind them. The plot moves to a new quest for a ‘god-formula’ which can repel them, but gives its user too much power to risk. Hannah’s story turns out to be almost a side-issue, to be wrapped up afterwards in an epilogue. Hitchcock called the secret that everyone was after ‘the Maguffin’, and he used that plot successfully in many films, but he never let the Maguffin take over the action.

Duncan Lunan

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