Friday, July 31, 2015

Faction Paradox - Head of State - Andrew Hickey

As a writer, it would be lovely if my work was reaching a wide audience - if it was part of some great popular series say, or I'd managed to make a name for myself (or a living!).

While that's not true (yet) I can take considerable solace in being one of the writers who's contributed to the Faction Paradox corpus, a line of books (audios and comics) which so far has produced work which has always been excellent, thought-provoking, humane, and jam-packed with ideas and marvels.  I've decided therefore - working backwards chronologically from the most recent, to review [excluding my own] all the FP novels and short stories here (I might do the audios, I no longer own copies of the 2 comics).  Naturally I'm potentially biased, I've written for this milieu since my contributions in The Book of the War (before if you count my and Mark Clapham's Doctor Who novel 'The Taking of Planet 5') and I know many of the writers, respect them as peers, and count some of them as friends as well as colleagues.  I'll try not to let that biase the reviews.

HEAD OF STATE - Andrew Hickey

" 'When the seventh head speaks, the War will end…’
In 11th century Arabia, Shahrazad tells her final story, on the
thousand and second night.
In 19th century Britain, Sir Richard Burton is sent on the most important mission of his life.
In 21st century America, a serial killer is stalking a Presidential campaign.
And the hero has been written out of the novel.
‘”…and the true War will begin.’  "

The thousand and second night story of the Arabian Nights, told by the severed head of Shahrarad - recounted in a translation by Sir Richard Burton, is the story of three Wazirs, each of who tells a tale, and the three tales they tell are set to exert a dreadful influence on the lives of the protagonists - for they are a kind of trap, woven across time. 

In the present day (or perhaps slightly in the future) during a US presidential election, and after, a British female, left-wing journo-blogger, and an American right-winger who's receiving messages in the media that he's reluctantly concluded are probably from God, are circling about events they have no hope of understanding, while trapped within the fabric of the book - an entity who is no longer the hero of his own story (even though he considers it too meta to say so) desperately attempts to groom them to fill the gap he's left in the narrative.

Several strands weave, with sinuous grace towards an almost predetermined horror.

I really liked this, and while I've liked all the Faction Paradox books - I think there is a common problem to some of them that this avoids. (On the other hand I think it does have a problem of its own which I'll come to, but it's so minor that it would be churlish to mention it first.)

So strengths:  it's light, it's breezy, it's utterly without some of the 'portentiousness' that sometimes threatens to bogs down the FP books. The cutting between the main narrators, and the nested stories, doesn't impede the flow, as it could have done in less skilled hands and the narrators themselves are ably voiced and individually human.  All of them, even the odiously self-worshipping Sir Richard Burton are developed as real people and have desires and aims that ring true, even as they are manipulated by powers, both seen and unseen.  

You may be of a political persuasion that makes it unlikely you think you'd be able to sympathise with a poorly educated neolibertarian, with few prospects, planning to shoot the President because of the writing on his milk cartons (even if by then the bill-boards are all trying to tell him he's got the wrong end of the stick) but he's trying to do his best in an increasingly maddening world. 

You may be of a political persuasion that makes it unlikely you think you'll be able to sympathise with a less bright than she thinks she is UK blogger sticking her nose into US politics, but you will - even if the voice trying to speak through the narrative edits out her romance subplot - because she sees and understands her errors, and tries too to make the world better, as hard as a real person can.  If that isn't going to be hard enough, that isn't her fault.

It's a joy to read, even if it's not a joy for those trapped within it!

The problem?  It's a perhaps a shade too oblique on why exactly the eventual end should be so catastrophic - although in purely local political terms the speech involved does more than enough, it needs a wider grasp of the Faction Paradox lore to know exactly who is making it, and what an escalation this represents.  Equally the identity of the shift despite there being no explicit statement, and an embedded fall-back in the text (well it could be Sh'vay), risks over-exciting some readers in a way that could draw the attention from what the novel is doing towards a discussion of other things which are strictly peripheral to Faction Paradox.

It demands (I think) if not a sequel - a continuation!  

All in all, though this is an excellent novel - particularly when its both the author's first real extended narrative (though his short work has always been good), and has to stand against novels by Lawrence Miles, Philip Purser-Hallard, Kelly Hale and others. 

Let us welcome a new Cousin.  

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