September 06, 2018
(++++) PICARESQUE SCIENTIFANTASMAGORIA
Temper. By Nicky Drayden. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
In her second genre-bending and not-neatly-classifiable novel of an Africa that never was, Nicky Drayden takes the same approach as in her first, The Prey of Gods: throw an enormous number of details, characters and plot strands at the reader, from all sorts of angles, and see which ones stick together and which stick to the reader’s consciousness (they are not necessarily the same ones). Sprawling and pervaded with dark humor (saying “black humor” in this context would be an uncalled-for pun), Temper piles so many imaginative elements into what is essentially the teenager-coming-of-age trope that readers will almost lose the thread of the story while immersing themselves in the worldbuilding.
“Almost” is the key. Unlike The Prey of Gods, in which matters did not quite coalesce and the novel ultimately felt too jury-rigged to hang together with anything approaching narrative elegance, Temper entices precisely because it so often comes so close to veering off the tracks but then gets out of its own way just in time to spring another surprising twist that, it eventually turns out, is as germane as it initially seems not to be.
Posit an Africa in which European colonialism never occurred and is relegated to a Shakespearian/Faulknerian tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, “about ‘death traders’ skimming around the ocean in their sailing ships, and their ‘skin the color of sun-bleached bone.’” True, the character who says this is not an idiot – more of an idiot savant, although indeed once relegated to a “whackhouse” – but this pass at the past is typical of Drayden’s approach to revealing background by offering just the slightest of bows to the real world while driving a deep wedge between it and the world of the novel.
So yes, there are men and women in Temper, but perhaps half the people are kigens, either feminized males (fem kigens) or masculinized females (andy kigens), subjected in the old days to bigoted labels such as “finemister” and “laddie” and still marginalized. Kigens are twins – but that is decidedly not unusual, since in this world (in the nation of Mzansi, which is more or less South Africa), twins are the norm. Why? The idiot savant, Uncle Pabio, says the rationalists known as Rashtra “could talk all day about the scientific reasons behind the prevalence of twinning in our lands, pointing to our diets or anomalies within our genes. But they don’t twin like we do, so they can never know what their eyes and minds do not tell them. Two halves are not the same as one.” There are occasional singletons in society, to be sure: singletons used to be drowned at birth and are still sometimes killed to “be reunited with our unborn twin,” but now they, like kigen, are generally more-or-less tolerated even though it is believed that they neither see nor think the “right” way.
So there is one major plot element of Temper: finding out what eyes and minds alone do not tell you, and accepting that even in closely bound twins, two halves are not the same as one whole. And oh yes, the twins in Temper are closely bound: one is greater, one lesser, according to religious/mystical circumstances that result, at a time called Discernment, in the division between the two of the seven virtues and seven vices – which are then permanently branded into their skin. Virtually everyone is more-or-less balanced, with three vices and four virtues or the other way around. Rarely, the balance is five-and-two. Only the land’s gods, Grace and Icy Blue, have seven virtues (Grace) or seven vices (Icy Blue). But very, very rarely, a pair of twins will have a six-and-one division, as is the case with 17-year-olds Kasim (one vice, six virtues) and Auben (one virtue, six vices). Temper is their story, specifically Auben’s story – he is the narrator – but of necessity Kasim’s as well, since twins cannot be separated by significant distances or physical discomfort becomes significant, then intolerable, and eventually horrendous (in ways that Drayden does not hesitate to explore). The book’s seven sections are named for and closely correlated with the marks that Auben bears, building to “Temper” (overweening anger) at the end after passing through “Vainglory,” “Envy,” “Duplicity,” “Doubt” and “Lechery” – with “Charity,” Auben’s sole virtue, as the penultimate section (“Greed” is Kasim’s one vice). Even in the choice of verbiage for the vices and virtues, Drayden’s worldbuilding shows its cleverness, since the concept of seven virtues and seven deadly sins is a longstanding and well-known one in our reality – but the sins do not have these names in our world, and do not work themselves through into life in quite the same way or with quite the same consequences.
Drayden’s world is foundationally consistent, which is what makes it convincing as well as enthralling. The inability of twins to be separated by significant geographical distance, for example, results in city planning that creates nicer neighborhoods for the twins with more virtues and downtrodden slums known as “comfies” for the more-vice-ridden people. The literal barrier between a comfy and the rest of the community represents class distinction but also closeness: no one can live too far from his, her or eir (the kigen pronoun) “evil twin.” But the vice-heavy twins are not evil, and this is one of the many subtleties here. In fact, after working through some themes that she first explored in The Prey of Gods – about science, religion, the belief structures underlying both, and the likelihood that we get pretty much the gods we deserve – Drayden eventually comes down firmly on the side of asserting the importance of both virtue and vice, a conclusion that readers may find arguable but one that will certainly get them thinking. Actually, pretty much everything in Temper will get readers thinking, and ultimately that is what sets the novel well above most entries in the many genres whose boundaries it crosses.