(2010) John Meaney, Gollancz, £12.99, trdpbk, 407pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08532-9
This is the first book of the Ragnarok trilogy, though I never noticed the name Ragnarok other than on the cover and the title page. That, however, in no way reduced my enjoyment.
We start with the observation that there is something dark at the galactic core, and Dark means Nasty. It also means that these dark forces will have to be fought by the Good Guys if 'we' are to win, the Good Guys being the Ragnarok Council. This book very much sets the scene for the trilogy and introduces us to a number of characters.
We realise that the dark forces work subtly by identifying a person here and a person there that can be exploited and encouraged to actions which, in the long run, will be to the disadvantage of their societies (reminiscent of Mr. Morden in Babylon 5). Some of these “baddies” are, at least somewhat, aware of their situation and deeply unhappy about it but once on the hook … Likewise, some of our heroes are aware of the darkness around these dark servants but are not sure what it means.
The action takes place over many centuries with each character being firmly placed in his/her own time. The narrative flits back and forth along the time stream, each story being told within its own chronology, and between them they are woven into a whole - and John Meaney weaves well.
We start in the year 777 with the Viking Ulfr. He is a simple hunter, bringing food to his village. He is strong and courageous and not easily deceived so, when the itinerant storyteller Stígr starts weaving his dark will into the minds of the villagers Ulfr is able to drive him out. However, Stígr moves easily from village to village and his deceit that the Vikings should raid their neighbours and take from the weak is easily spread.
We move forward to the period 1926 to 1940 and follow Gavriela Wolf as she develops from a young student of physics to a scientist in the Second World War. Being a German Jew, many bad things befall her friends and her family and she is one of the few to eventually reach the safety of British shores. Early on, she comes across Dmitri Shtemenko from the shadier side of the Russian military; a spy and cold-hearted killer. Despite being followed by the darkness, he rescues her from the Nazi Brownshirts, aware that they can both see the darkness yet being very different - a dark servant that is following his own path.
In 2146 we join Rekka Chandri as she arrives on planet EM-0036 to covertly study the indigenous peoples and their society. She has hardly arrived when she is discovered by Sharp, a young local who is nearing adulthood. His horns will soon grow and he is determined to bring honour to his family, and knowledge of their alien visitors is just the sort of thing he needs. As his people communicate by scent messages not speech, translation between the races is something of a challenge.
Arriving in 2603 we reach the majority of the action and move back and forth between Fulgor, a terraformed planet and home to a human colony, and Labyrinth, the home in mu-space of the Pilots. The latter are basically normal humans though they possess the genetic adaptations necessary to cope with piloting ships through the fractal nature of mu-space.
Fulgor is place of futuristic marvels; being built of materials such as quickstone and quickglass and furnished with smartfabrics, rooms and even whole buildings configure themselves at one’s will. People control their environments and equipments with the tu-rings on their fingers and access data and confer via the smartlenses fitted to their eyes. They travel by aircabs and move through buildings on floors and carpets that flow to their requirements and ascend and descend in flowshafts. SatScan watches from above and, as everything is connected, all actions are recorded and monitored and all (well, nearly all) is known to peacekeeper intelligence. For every form of surveillance there is of course a countermeasure, and there are those who are adept with smartmiasmas.
The Blackstones, Carl and Miranda and their son Roger, are Pilots. Outwardly a normal businessman on Fulgor, Carl is in fact an Agent In Place and his family’s true nature is a deep secret. Roger has just come of age and is leaving home to go to the multiversity in Lucis City.
At the top of the social and professional pile are the Luculentas. Not only are they naturally the very brightest of people but they have been highly enhanced with plexnode processing centres and high speed communication plexwebs throughout their bodies. Their ability to observe, compute, and understand is without rival, and they can achieve in fractions of a second what would take a normal skilled professional many months. Much of the time they “live” in Skein, the virtual world connecting them and all the planet’s systems. One of these is Raschella Stargonier, who has just discovered an old-style plexcore, very well and entirely illegally hidden deep beneath her gardens. Her intellectual curiosity aroused, she cannot resist the urge to interface with it, little realising the danger - for this had belonged to Rafael Garcia de la Vega, the murderous Luculenta that had killed so many of his kind a hundred years previously. As the vampire code takes over she metamorphoses into Rafaella, driven by the hunger that drove her predecessor … and the consequences will be dire for all of Fulgor.
Meanwhile, the Blackstones take a break and return to Labyrinth. Here we learn more of Carl’s role and, importantly, of the intrigues and power struggles in the higher echelons as seen by his boss, Commodore Max Gould. Even though he knows that something Very Bad is on its way, Max also has to struggle with just who is on which side, and what are the sides? We also come to suspect that Labyrinth is no mere city, it is something much more.
Back on Fulgor, Rafaella is quietly plotting her future but is not entirely unobserved; Superintendent Keinosuke Sunadomari of peacekeeper intelligence is very aware that something is going on. The question is - will he figure it out in time?
And just what are the mysterious creatures known as Zajinets?
Stopping off briefly in 5563, to The World, we find the silver-skinned Harij sitting on an edge, trying to catch a passing Idea.
Occasionally our heroes are linked by strange dreams as they become vaguely aware that they are part of something larger. In 502013 we find ourselves on Luna where, in airless halls, are beings of living crystal, each somehow home to one of our heroes. They are linked in a common purpose - to fight the Darkness.
Scenes, particularly the cities and buildings of the future, are described evocatively and with wonder as to the magnificence that would meet the reader’s eyes. The technology is inventive but is nicely taken for granted as if we were already using it every day.
The individual stories within the whole are well-told and held my interest, and together they gave a sense of the timeless battle being waged. The book was easy to read and nicely paced, always interesting and without noticeable peaks and troughs; it was often difficult to put down.
And now for my only real complaint, mild though it is. One of the problems with all trilogies is ensuring that each book is entirely satisfying in its own right and here it does suffer just a little. Whilst the film of The Fellowship Of The Ring had both a satisfying ending of its own yet also promised that the story would continue and you had but to wait for it - the epic was by no means over yet - The Two Towers simply faded out with a feeling of Yes, there’s more good stuff to come, but this volume has got to end here because we’ve run out of time. Likewise Absorption is a good story but I felt that the very end lacked a big enough bang of its own and left me simply with a promise of good things to come. (Maybe I just did not envision it fully?)
All-in-all, a good read and I look forward to the future instalments. I want to know how it ends!
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