HiD­Den sUn

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

SFX - - Reviews -

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.

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