Friday 9 June 2017

The Glorious Angels

(June 2017)

Justina Robson is a novelist whose scope of imagination frequently leaves me in awe, but whose plotting just as frequently leaves me scratching my head trying to work out exactly what’s going on. In this regard Glorious Angels, somewhat counterintuitively, seems to do slightly better than those of her other books I’ve read.

This is counterintuitive because Glorious Angels is one of those sprawling, multiple PoV books that I suppose we’re now required to compare to A Song of Ice and Fire, so on the face of it there’s a lot more room than usual for the plot to spiral out of control. A slightly meandering middle third aside, however, it’s all kept on a relatively tight leash, aided by the fact that about halfway the penny drops regarding the nature of the world and, bells and whistles aside, it then becomes a relatively traditional far-future quest narrative.

The city of Glimshard is one of eight around which the human empire is based, each with its own telepathically-linked empress. Glimshard’s ethos is the old duality of the sensual and the scientific, with the empress encouraging what we might recognize as a sort of free love. The city is populated, meanwhile, by various hereditary, scholarly houses whose principal role seems to be finding and resurrecting useful technology from a more advanced but bygone era. A war has been raging at the fringes of the empire against some nondescript barbarian analogues and, more threateningly, the Karoo, an alien race of matriarchal shapeshifters upon whose territory Glimshard’s archeological investigations have trespassed. The massive artifact/macguffin which is the cause of this transgression is, it turns out, of interest to a number of competing groups.

The point of view characters include: Torada, the teenage empress of Glimshard, capable of commanding loyalty through some sort of pheromone type thing; Zaharin, a seemingly louche dandy and intelligence agent; Tralane Huntingore, the head scholar of a house of engineers, and her daughters Isabeau and Minabar; and Tzaban, a karoo who has taken it upon himself to act as mercenary and diplomat to Torada’s court. There are several others besides, and once things pick up pace it’s a mild disappointment that the story coalesces around Tralane, as she’s one of the less interesting characters here; it’s not that she’s dull (she isn’t), but both her daughters and Zaharin seem to have much more about them.

This is a novel centred on the social, and the minutiae of interpersonal calculation can get a little stodgy at times. (Related note: whenever I read something like this I find myself asking if there really are people who dissect their interactions to this degree, in the moment. After the fact I get, and I’d hardly hold myself up as a paragon of social grace, but how much conscious calculation of the sort described here does one person really make during small talk?) This is leavened, however, by a decent dose of horror—the Karoo in full effect are terrifyingly alien—and on a couple of unexpected occasions some straight-up (for want of a better phrase) porn, which certainly keeps things moving in an interesting direction.

There’s a lot to like (and to have other more instinctive feelings about) in this book, and I’m mildly surprised it didn’t get more attention when it came out. It’s the sort of Big Idea SF that, when it gets it right, can really take your breath away with the depth and the scale of its vision. Despite the uneven pacing, it does this more often than not. It’s that whole sensawunda thing, which Glorious Angels has in spades.

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