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Underground Reading: Irenicon by Aidan Harte

This is part of a series of reviews - my attempt to cover all nine finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Award before the winner is announced at the end of October. I'll be approaching these books in a slightly templated fashion: plot summary, good stuff, not so good stuff, conclusion.


IreniconLike a bridge over troubled water

Irenicon (2012) is Aidan Harte's debut - a combination of epic fantasy and alternate history, set in an early Renaissance Europe not too dissimilar from our own. Except for the water-monsters and ninja nuns, I suppose. 

The city-state of Concord rules most of Italy-analogue ("Etruria") and perhaps further (it isn't quite clear). Concord's history is recited through a series of sycophantic historical interjections, a "true history" of both the city and its engineering messiah, Bernoulli. It seems that Bernoulli (who seems to have been a much more pleasant person in our history) developed all sorts of metaphysical magical whatnot in addition to his more commonly known principles. Also, imperial ambitions.

The combination of Bernoulli's disciplined engineers and Concord's legions make the city triumphant over all its rivals.The one exception? Rasenna. This city, with its army of glamorous banner-wielding maniacs, proves too much. Concord is defeated on the battlefield and responds in a different way: Bernoulli unleashes the Wave, and annihilates the city, driving a river all the way through it.

Now, two generations later, Rasenna is a shadow of its former self - petty nobles glare at one another over the river, and engage in an endless series of pointless, bloody schemes. Concord ignores the city that is, except when they take their annual tribute. 

The bulk of the (quite lengthy) Irenicon takes place in Rasenna. Giovanni is a Concordian engineer, who, under some sort of mysterious cloud, is sent to Rasenna to build a bridge over the city's river. Concord need to march some troops through. Sofia is Rasenna's Countess - the last of the line of the city's rulers. Sixteen-turning-seventeen, she's not inherited yet, but she's having a good time taking part in the city's culture of street fights and political backstabbing. Irenicon is the story of how they meet, how they influence one another, and how they (eventually) get around to changing the world. 

I'm on your side

Irenicon is a twisty, turny book with a lot going for it. Although vaguely European books are de rigeur on this year's shortlist (and in the category as a whole), Irenicon outshines its peers as a carefully considered alternate history that balances historically-inspired creativity and a high fantasy magic system. The points of divergence are intriguingly chosen - for one, Christ never reaches adulthood, which changes the history of both Christianity (it now solely venerates the Virgin Mary, and the crucifix is replaced by the 'sword of Herod' as an icon) and Rome. This, however, is meaningless in the light of Bernoulli's ReFormation - his purging of the Curia and installation of his pseudo-natural-philosophy as both a government and a religion.

And, of course, why wouldn't he? Irenicon is fascinating because, amongst other things, we have an (extremely) high fantasy world wherein magic was essentially just discovered. Much of the book is about the repercussions of Bernoulli's work - from the major physical changes (the Wave, the feats of engineering) to the socio-economic ones (the destruction of the nobility, the clash of religions) to the more subtle touches (the Orwellian re-writing of history). In a way, Irenicon is about the advent of an all-pervasive, world-changing technology - what happens when a 14th century natural philosophy stumbles on something as nakedly powerful as the atom bomb. 

Another strong point of Irenicon is the setting of Rasenna, with its sunken towers and broken walls, is superbly rendered. Mr. Harte doesn't shy from using it as a home for evocative, swashbuckling drama; the city's bandieratori springing from crumbling roof to crumbling roof, using their flags as weapons. There's a gloomy glamour to the city as it slides into ruin, neatly balancing out the fiery passion of its people. Even as they beat one another senseless with sticks, the Rasenneisi infuse everything with a heroic sense of passion.

Nor do Sofia and Giovanni shy away from a bit of melodrama: Irenicon is packed to the gills with noble sacrifices, last-minute rescues and emotional speeches. Nothing here happens by halves, with our protagonists flinging themselves from one situation to another. This helps make Irenicon a deceptively quick read - although it bogs down a bit in the middle - the first half occasionally reads like a serialised Errol Flynn movie. (No bad thing.)

When times get rough

...all that momentum from the first half? Irenicon needs it. Although the book begins with incredible energy - bridge-building, scrapping, star-crossed romance, ninja training! - it hits a wall. As soon as events move on from Rasenna and the protagonists are separated, it becomes a far more conventional sort of Chosen One narrative. Certainly Irenicon never pretends otherwise - both Giovanni and Sofia are special snowflakes with Secret Pasts and Vastly Important Futures, but as long as the characters were confined to Rasenna, their capital-d-Destinies were more manageable. The concluding scenes of the book feel especially rushed, especially compared to the detail of the opening scenes.

Nor do Sofia or Giovanni make particularly strong protagonists. The latter is at his best when he's absorbed in his engineering, and it is easiest to connect with him when he's doing fairly human things: being proud of his apprentice, solving a mechanical problem, wanging on about deadlines. But when he goes off on a tear about his "bloodied hands" and mysterious past, Giovanni is less empathetic (and far less interesting). Giovanni: nice guy, but not a charismatic hero.

Sofia's problem seems to stem from her awkward age (not, incidentally, her gender: no fail here). Some times, Sofia is a noble figure, completely composed, invincible and unchallengeable, the wisest person in the room. Other times, she's snarky for no reason (one particularly jarring moment is when she keeps interrupting an elderly nun's lectures to call her "senile"), rude and occasionally cringe-worthy. Sofia feels like two completely different people - and neither of them - the omnipotent nor the brat - are particularly appealing. Sofia does, however, get more interesting plots than Giovanni, which helps serve as a bit of a distraction.

The two protagonists - and many of the minor point of view characters - are also cursed by a dependence on "tell, not show" emotional description. Some scenes - for example, Sofia's increasing frustration during her water-ninja training - are done perfectly. Others, such as the (inevitable, obvious and therefore not-spoiler-tagged) romance, are simply declared to the reader. Now these people are in love. Now this character is filled with resentment. Now this character is ready to sacrifice himself. Etc. To some degree, Mr. Harte covers his bases by portraying the (overly) emotional people of Rasenna as a bit bonkers - these are folks that would scream "NOW I AM FEELING GUILTY ABOUT MY BETRAYAL OF YOUR FATHER" and then leap out a window. But this is a cheap and cheerful approach to character development; hard to sustain over a book of this length.

I will lay me down

A confession: I read Irenicon last year for The Kitschies, remembered it was a solid work and decided to save my re-read and review for last. And I'm glad I did - I haven't been overly impressed with this year's shortlists, and I'm glad for the opportunity to go out on a (relatively) high note.

Make no mistake - this book has its problems, largely concentrated in a second half that feels unreasonably rough. But Irenicon also ticks a lot of boxes: a thoughtful world, romantic setting, provocative philosophical themes and a hearty dose of swashbuckling entertainment. I personally gravitate towards small-scale political chicanery and intelligent (not crusading) characters: two traits that are present in force. Similarly, fantasy lovers that like big systems of magic and towering citadels of evil will find something to appeal to them as well. If Irenicon seems rough in places, it is because it tries to cover both extremes. But debuts should be ambitious, and Irenicon displays more than enough promise as well; this is not only a serious contender for this year's DGLA prize, but should be a series that's worth following.