December 06, 2018
(+++) FROM GRIM AND GLOOMY TO GRAND AND GLORIOUS
Bound Gods #3: The Shattered Sun. By Rachel Dunne. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
Star Carrier, Book Eight: Bright Light. By Ian Douglas. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
As Rachel Dunne’s dour, dismal Bound Gods fantasy trilogy moves to its conclusion and Ian Douglas’ SF trilogy-of-trilogies moves to its penultimate adventure, both authors stay true to the worlds and universes they have created and the characters and motivations that have moved the plots of these sequences – for better or worse. Dunne’s action-packed, often gruesome 500-page The Shattered Sun features the same unpleasant characters as In the Shadow of the Gods and The Bones of the Earth, the two prior novels, and forces readers to accept the notion that the less-awful characters are on the better of the two bad sides. Dunne’s interpretation of dark fantasy is very dark indeed, making it unusually suitable that the plot of The Shattered Sun involves the “Long Night,” a time of unending darkness ushered in by the evil Twins, long-imprisoned gods who – at the end of the previous book – returned to a measure of power by taking over the bodies of human twins. Twinning is crucial to the entire Bound Gods trilogy, explaining why infant twins have long been slaughtered without mercy (because they might eventually become vessels for the evil gods) and why two of the less-bad characters have long been in hiding under a cloud of desperation (because they are twins who have managed to grow up). The first two books of the trilogy involved attempts to revive – or prevent the revival of – the fallen gods Fratarro (obviously and rather strangely named from Latin frater, brother) and Sororra (soror, sister, with one twin god’s name having an “o” ending and one having an “a” for gender differentiation: the use of vaguely Latin names in a world that is supposed to be utterly unlike ours is a peculiarity of this trilogy). With the Twins’ re-emergence into what appears to be full power at the end of the second book, the third must involve a grand battle to defeat them, lest the world be plunged into the never-ending darkness that is the Twins’ preferred form of existence. Why? Well, Dunne never really says: the Twins’ sole motivation is to get back at their unseen “parent” gods, “father” Patharro and “mother” Metherra (again from Latin: pater and mater plus the respective “o” and “a” endings). Dunne distracts from the frivolity of the underlying motivation by focusing again and again on the depredations of the Twins and their followers on many characters, themselves included (some especially powerful Twins backers pierce their own eyes so they can share the darkness for which the Twins stand). The problem with The Shattered Sun and the whole Bound Gods trilogy is that the Twins’ opponents are just as brain-damaged and body-ruined as are their supporters. The antiheroic leader of the opposition, a former priest of the Twins named Joros, is a really nasty, vicious and duplicitous piece of work, and the people who follow him – all more or less unwillingly – are not much better, being deeply damaged in brain, body or both. The drug-addicted, mind-addled sorcerer Anddyr is one of the more-coherent and more-sympathetic characters, in contrast to now-grown sewer rat Rora, a supposedly first-rate fighter who, earlier in the trilogy, returns to her former haunts – where her “family” members mutilate her and nearly beat her to death in a very explicit way, resulting in her decision in The Shattered Sun to return to the same people again and yet again be nearly beaten to death in a very explicit way that also results in several of her companions being imprisoned and tortured. Add Scal, a mass murderer who silently stalks and kills pretty much anyone at pretty much any time, at the command of a deeply scarred and even more deeply vicious woman named Vatri, who is the self-proclaimed seer of the “parent” gods, and you have a pretty accurate picture of the “good” characters here. Eventually, since it is better for the sun to exist than to have the world plunged forever into night, the more-or-less-good guys win out over the less-or-more-bad ones, and Dunne produces a very slightly positive conclusion after suitably grand and gory battles, betrayals and general mayhem. Dunne actually writes well, but the Bound Gods trilogy is so downbeat and depressing that readers who have ground their way through it and who prefer anything other than the very darkest of dark fantasy will likely feel mostly relief when the whole thing lurches to its essentially foregone conclusion.
There is also a certain amount of lurching going on in the Star Carrier thrice-trilogy as the eighth of the nine books arrives. Ian Douglas (one of the pen names of William H. Keith, Jr.) has been stringing plots and readers along for many, many pages with this interstellar/military/consciousness/religion/multiple-alien-encounters tale, in which humanity triumphs again and again when confronted with a growing series of supposedly superior races and technologies (the latter including its own AI and super-AI creations). Underlying the particular form of humanity that Douglas creates here is a series of religious wars that led to a decree called the White Covenant, under which public displays of religion were banned, as was proselytizing. Religious or pseudo-religious elements continue to peek and poke their way into Star Carrier, though, being intertwined with the whole notion of a higher consciousness, evolution, species that have developed along lines entirely different from that of humanity, and other typical (and typically overdone) SF tropes. At the center of the multiple plot lines is Trevor “Sandy” Gray, a longtime military leader and apparently a closet Christian (in the seventh book, Dark Mind, he mentally objects, at some length, to the celebration of the winter solstice rather than Christmas). Gray both depends on machine intelligence (as do pretty much all the characters here) and is skeptical of it and worried that it could endanger humanity; this is nothing unusual in SF or, for that matter, in real-world news stories. In Dark Mind, Gray took on a mission from a super-AI called Konstantin to investigate a star system that might have a super-advanced alien race that might help humanity fight a race of sentient bacteria that controls a wide variety of alien species. To investigate this system, Gray had to disobey orders from his superiors, a major no-no in military circles, but Gray did so because he is heroic and upstanding and an all-around good guy. The result was that Gray’s command of his starship – the America, no less – was taken away, and he has been left without the organizational, hierarchical moorings of his longtime military service. This, it turns out, is exactly what Konstantin (at least the Konstantin clone aboard the America) wanted, because without a starship to command, Gray can be sent in Bright Light on a mission to the remote star Deneb, where Konstantin will arrange for him to encounter yet another mysterious and immensely powerful alien civilization that may be able to prevent humanity from being wiped out again. Umm, no, that may again prevent humanity from being wiped out. Something like that. Anyway, the title Bright Light refers to an all-new artificial intelligence, although how far superior it can be to the virtually all-knowing (or at least all-manipulating) Konstantin is hard to determine. It is scarcely surprising that a series as extended as this one is packed with characters and plot lines, but Star Carrier at this point seems overextended and a trifle tired. Planet-sized brains not enough of an enemy for humans? How about minuscule bacteria? That sort of thing: Douglas seems to be reaching for greater and greater complexity and complication at the service of what is, foundationally, a rather simple premise under which superior alien races nearly destroy humanity repeatedly but are beaten back because humans, gosh darn it, just have so much pluck and such willingness to risk everything by doing stuff they don’t fully understand but that, by golly, actually works. It is a kind of country-bumpkin view of humanity, and it leaves Gray and the other Star Carrier characters seeming something less than vibrant, never mind intelligent. Still, readers who have stuck with the series so far will find Bright Light a solid advancement of the whole Star Carrier sequence and will surely be looking ahead to the coming final book. For that matter, readers who dipped into the series early – its first few books were its best – will also look forward to the coming last entry, if only because Douglas, who is nothing if not an adept writer, is likely to use it to provide a suitably uplifting finale.