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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Consorts of Heaven" by Jaine Fenn (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Jaine Fenn Website
Order Consorts of Heaven

INTRODUCTION:Last year there was a crop of new Gollancz debuts that were highly touted , so from those 3 or 4 novels, I ordered on publication the books that held some interest for me. Principles of Angels was one such and while I knew very little about it, I was hooked when I opened the book on arriving on my doorstep courtesy of The Book Depository and realizing it's a sf adventure rather than a sff fantasy that I sort of expected based on the title and not doing my homework.

I liked "Principles of Angels" quite a lot and Ms. Fenn became another writer that I would get any book from asap, so "Consorts of Heaven" became one of my most awaited books of 2009 since it was announced last year.

I am happy to say that "Consorts of Heaven" not only met my very high expectations, but it exceeded them. A different novel than "Principles in Angels" both in tone and setting, "Consorts of Heaven" expands the range of Ms. Fenn's work being more character oriented, but with lots of twists and enough action to satisfy every sff adventure fan too.

OVERVIEW: Sometime in the future mankind falls and rises again—with help—leaving human-occupied space as an apparently stable area of several hundred semi-autonomous systems, no two alike, while space travel is based on powerful technology, legacy of an alien race called the Sidhe that dominated/helped humanity a long time ago but is presumed extinct now.

However when you open "Consorts of Heaven" you are plunged into the backwoods ("uplands") of a typical medieval-like theocratic un-named fantasy world. What's going on?

Well the blurb makes it clear that the novel is related to "Principle of Angels" so we already know that there is much more here than it meets the eye. The world of Consorts is based on the worship of five Goddesses whose earthly representative, the Cariad, rules from the far-away citadel of Tyr, helped by a council of five supreme priests ("Escorai").

The world is strongly patriarchal, women being restricted to "home duties" or to the well-known second oldest profession. When a boy can do magic, he is "blessed by Heaven" and if the magic is strong enough (making the boy autistic) he is called a "skyfool" and on his 15 birthday he is called to testing in Tyr to see if he is fit to become a Consort of the Goddeses. If the magical powers are not that strong, the boy usually becomes a priest; incidentally all priests have the right of asking sexual favors from pretty much any woman.

When a girl can do magic, she is "cursed by The Abyss" and she is to be killed on sight, unless she can hide her abilities or is taken by the Cariad as a special "holy prostitute".

There is a "holy text" which restricts what can or cannot be done (eg all food has to be grown by hand, technology is very severely restricted) and every generation a plague descends on the population, killing many though not all afflicted, unless it is eliminated by the benevolence
of Heaven which heralds a renewal of the bond with the Goddesses. Of course priests are generally immune from it and their prayers are considered to be the only way to keep the patient alive until it passes; it even works sometimes.

Kerin is the strong widowed mother of 15 year old Damaru who is a "skyfool". Damaru is strongly autistic (which means also that he has strong powers) and until his magical talent asserted itself, he was considered just mentally impaired; of course the novel being sf, we later find out what "magic" is truly.

Sais (stranger in the local language) is a memory-less man, found in a "haunted" place by Damaru and later taken in to her hut for healing by Kerin.

Einon is an upper priest from Tyr who fell from favor in the convoluted politics of the capital - for discovering, well it would be a spoiler to say what, but it is something that today we take for granted, but historically indeed it was considered a major development in the scientific evolution of humanity and that is is another nice touch of the author. He is sent by his Escorai mentor to lead a village "drove" in the middle of nowhere. It just happens that Damaru is on that drove on his way to be tested in Tyr, while Kerin inveigled herself a place on it as the only one who can control him with Sais following to try and figure out who he is.

"Consorts of Heaven" stands at about 320 pages and is narrated from the POV of Kerin, Sais and later Einon. The ending is excellent tying all the threads of the novel and connecting it clearly with "Principles of Angels" and its characters, while the next installment "Guardians of Paradise" should be another superb one.

ANALYSIS:A page turner with lots of unexpected twists - though we *know* the general direction of the book before opening it - I could not put it down until I got to the superb ending.

From the first pages, I loved Kerin's narration as she tries to take care of her autistic son, tries to finally come to terms with the sudden death of her husband two years ago and faces the prospect of losing Damaru soon to the drove that will take him to the testing in Tyr.

Not a typical fantasy heroine, being neither of exalted blood nor young, beautiful or spunky, Kerin is actually one of the most memorable sff leads that I encountered and the way she copes with the unexpected is just great. Elarn in "Principles" who is her high tech analog to some extent was much more "naive" and confused, though the two women share some characteristics.

So when Sais is found unconscious and almost dead by Damaru it is understandable that she throws herself into saving him and later uses very cleverly his presence and mystery as well as Damaru's powerful but hard to control magic to get a place on the drove, where it is almost unheard for a woman to go. After all women cannot come near domestic animals because the "feminine essence" may lead to said animals becoming barren; and so it goes with the restrictions that women face on the Consorts world...

While it seems quite predictable form the above, the relationship that develops between Kerin and Sais is far from simple as the reader will discover; again it will not do to spoil the reasons, but do not expect a cookie-cutter fantasy romance.

Damaru is also portrayed very well as the autistic boy-magician that needs to be cosseted, protected and managed; after all if he gets upset who knows what can happen; as a bullied young child his first magical manifestation led to very unpleasant consequences for the bullies and as almost a force of nature he is unpredictable but powerful, so the village chief is very happy to have him out of his responsibility and if it means allowing Kerin to go, that's how it is.

Sais slowly recovering his memories and understanding what's going on since as expected and not a real spoiler, he is a true outsider, assumes more and more a central role as the novel goes on, but it still mostly Kerin's book.

Einon the smart and well intentioned upper priest has also a very good and natural in hindsight character evolution, though again it may not be what is expected from the standard sff adventure.

The world building is magnificent and while the narrower focus - at least for most of the novel - seems limiting, it also allows the author the opportunity to showcase additional skills with a combination of the familiar and the strange.

I loved the book a lot and while it's early and all, it will definitely be a notable sf novel of 09 and possibly a top five too.

Highly, highly recommended and this one goes beyond the "personal favorite" label of "Principle of Angels" establishing Jaine Fenn as an accomplished sff author.


Cindy said...

I have to admit that this is a case of a books cover making me want to read it. I don't even think I'd like the story as it's not for me but I could stare at that cover for a while :)


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