|Simon Morden: Arcanum
||[Jul. 27th, 2015|03:09 pm]
Disclaimer: Simon Morden is sufficiently a friend that, as I wrote at the time, I not only bought my copy of Arcanum at the launch, I was one of the party who went to the pub for lunch afterwards. I'm also a fan of his writing.
At the launch, Simon summarised Arcanum as the story of a tiny principality whose control of magic guarantees peace and prosperity, which doesn't need anything else because it has magic - but what happens if that changes? Here's what he says about it on his website.
I enjoyed reading Arcanum: it made me think, and it made me want to know what would happen next. Naturally, I want to talk about it. But much of what I would like to say is, in my terms, spoilerish: the plot is delightfully twisty, all the major characters come up against life-changing events from very early in the book, and I'd hate to give away anything that ought to come as a surprise to the reader. So I'm going to sneak up on the subject sidewise, and talk about genre definitions, and see where that takes me.
Because Arcanum is one of those interesting, disconcerting books which seem to me to sit within the twin genres of fantasy and science fiction, belonging to one genre but with the flavour of the other (another example is Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy). You could read Arcanum alongside Simon Morden's earlier book, The Lost Art, for an interesting set of reflections and reversals. The Lost Art is science fiction, yet it has much of the flavour of fantasy: a man with strange powers on a low-tech world, a mysterious quest for a hidden secret, an arcanum... Whereas Arcanum describes a society which is reduced to a low-tech state because it has lost the art of magic, which had previously supplied those things which might otherwise rely on technology. Clarke's Law reversed: any sufficiently controlled magic is indistinguishable from technology.
It is definitely fantasy, because magic exists, or has existed: but what kind of fantasy starts out by removing magic from the world, by confronting the characters with the need to find a substitute for magic, and quickly? A very special kind, and that's probably why the publisher has gone to some trouble to make Arcanum look like a completely mainstream fantasy: the black cover, with the title in letters of flame above a knight in armour riding out from a burning town. It isn't misrepresentation. These elements are all part of the story, and a central part, too, quite apart from the obligatory Big Culminating Battle, which I admit I could have done with less of. But however much I might have preferred it, I know that no publisher is going to put on the cover the true heart of this book, which is the library.
There is also a Fantasy MapTM. I love a Fantasy Map, and this one is particularly helpful because this particular fantasy world has much in common with our own. It's barely a fantasy map at all, but a reminder of the names attributed to real world states and locations (where the word 'reminder' draws a tactful veil over the fact that I don't know as much as I probably ought about this region at this time: the better informed will probably identify the city of Juvavum, the centre of the action, straight away, but I had to look it up). If it weren't for that pesky magic, we'd be dealing with a counterfactual late middle ages; no wonder there's a lot that feels SFnal about this fantasy.
The big difference between this world and our own is that neither Christianity not Islam ever happened. There is Judaism, and it occupies the same sort of space as it did in our world at this time and place. So the host community celebrates Ostara, and worships the goddess, and respects the sacred grove at the centre of the city; and the Jewish community celebrates Purim, observes its own prohibitions and tries not to draw attention to itself. There may be a flaw in the logic of this worldbuilding: would Judaism have developed in the same way if its two great offshoots had not been born and flourished? But it serves the plot, in ways I don't intend to unravel here. It may not be absolutely authentic - as I said, not my region, not my period - but it permits some unusual twists of story and character, and I was just delighted to see it done at all.
Arcanum is not a world-spanning, multi-generational epic: it tells the story of one small country, through less than a year, from spring to the return of winter. Yet it's a big book, and it could have been bigger. Developments sometimes happen surprisingly quickly, and some aspects of the conclusion seem either insufficiently prepared or just unresolved (some characters are left in limbo, and they are good enough characters that I wanted to know more). Better to leave the reader wanting more than wanting less, I suppose.