O Brother, Where Art Thou?
released OUT NOW! 445 pages | Paperback/ebook Author Jaine Fenn Publisher angry robot
Five years after publishing the last of her far-future SF Hidden Empire novels, Jaine Fenn returns with a change of pace: the first volume in a science fantasy duology that brings together alien landscapes, weird biology and a society on the cusp of an earlymodern-style scientific revolution. The real star here is Fenn’s world, which is divided between skylands (vast expenses of rocky desert exposed to high levels of solar radiation) and a variety of smaller shadowlands (zones permanently but mysteriously shielded from the worst excesses of the sun). The people of the former have various physical adaptations, such as scaly skin, that enable them to thrive in the harsh environment; their “shadowkin” neighbours, by contrast, can survive only short forays through the Skylands.
The narrative is split into three strands. The most successful focuses on Rhia, a plucky bluestocking shadowkin noblewoman, whose search for her wayward brother takes her into the gloriously alien and inhospitable skyland, and whose innate curiosity and commitment to science – her most prized possession is the “sightglass” (rudimentary telescope) she’s designed so she can make astronomical observations – lets both her and us learn more about the world in satisfyingly organic ways. We could have done without the creaky plotting and clunky dialogue in her home shadowland either side of the trip, though. Meanwhile, disaffected skykin Dej’s strand doesn’t kick into gear until she leaves her shadowland “creche” (read: fairly generically oppressive boarding school) to begin her adult life in the skylands, and high priest Sadakh’s sinister anatomy experiments in the next shadowland over would be more interesting if both he and his storyline didn’t suffer the drag factor of having to be artificially super-secret for plot reasons.
While some parts of the novel outstay their welcome, then, Rhia’s journeys are where it really sings: they blend epic, widescreen vistas and intimate, claustrophobic tension in a way that evokes classic planetary romance SF. Nic Clarke
Way before a 17th century Dutchman invented the telescope, ancient Egyptians, Greeks and medieval Muslims used lenses.