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Worldstorm
James Lovegrove
Gollancz, 453 pages

Worldstorm
James Lovegrove
James Lovegrove, who also writes as J.M.H. Lovegrove, is an Arthur C. Clarke Award short-listed author. He was born on Christmas Eve, 1965. Despite the rumour and the year and a half he spent in Chicago between 1995 and 1996, he remains inarguably, ineluctably, irretrievably, irrevocably British. He lives in Lewes, East Sussex.

James Lovegrove Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Untied Kingdom
SF Site Review: The Hope
SF Site Review: Imagined Slights
SF Site Review: The Foreigners
SF Site Review: The Foreigners
SF Site Review: The Krilov Continuum
SF Site Review: The Hand That Feeds

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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In the world of Worldstorm, everyone is born with one of four Inclinations: Air, Earth, Water, or Fire. Each Inclination confers on its owner a particular set of abilities, which derive their nature from the element for which the Inclination is named. The Air-Inclined have abilities of mind, such as telepathy and previson. The Earth-Inclined have physical gifts, such as extraordinary strength or the capacity to regenerate their bodies. The Water-Inclined can manipulate water or see great distances or swim through the air. The Fire-Inclined can make and manipulate fire -- though when incendiaries lose command of their gifts, or (as happens occasionally with all classes of Inclination) are never able to acquire it, the results are dire.

The Worldstorm is an enormous, permanent storm that roves the earth, wreaking havoc wherever it passes. In its meteorological attributes -- wind, rain, lightning, the ground the lightning strikes -- it reflects all four of the Inclinations. Many people believe that there's a relationship between human beings and the giant storm -- though just what that relationship is, and how it came about, neither logic nor philosophy nor legend can properly explain. Some think that the Worldstorm and the Inclinations were born simultaneously out of some cosmic catastrophe that divided or fissured the till-then storm- and Inclination-free world. Some believe that human beings's bad acts create a kind of resonance, and the Worldstorm is the result. Some see the Worldstorm as a god. Some see it as a god's instrument -- a tool to punish humanity for its misdeeds.

Elder Annonax Ayn, an Air-Inclined previsionary, has conceived a scheme to defeat the Worldstorm -- a plan so farfetched that he has confided it to no one. Taking with him an enshriner, Khollo, to record his journey, he leaves the isolated magnificence of Stonehaven, the academic facility where he has spent most of his long life, and goes in search of a pair of unusual teenagers: Yashu, of pure Water-Inclined ancestry, who has manifested an Air Inclination; and Gregory, descended from a Fire bloodline, who is Earth-Inclined. Manifesting an Inclination outside one's bloodline is extremely rare; if Gregory and Yashu, who each represent two Inclinations, were to conceive a child, all four Inclinations would be present in a single individual. Might this unification of the fissured qualities of humankind banish the Worldstorm? Previsionary though he is, Elder Ayn doesn't know, for he can't see the outcome of his scheme. He has, however, seen the moment of his death -- or rather, his murder, by an unknown hand. As he dictates his story to Khollo, that moment haunts the narrative. Who will kill him? Why? Will his interference in the lives of Yashu and Gregory, who are not game pieces on a board but complex human beings with their own desires and ambitions, have the desired outcome? Or will it lead to something entirely unexpected?

Writers of speculative fiction are often asked which came first, world or story. In this case, I would bet that it was the world that came first, with the story being a way for the author to explore it. There's something of the travelogue about Worldstorm, with each of its characters illustrating a different locale and culture, and their journeys illustrating yet more. I don't mean to suggest that it's a dull or self-indulgent novel -- far from it. Worldstorm is tremendously entertaining. There's tragedy, but also humor; there's in-depth characterization, but also action. There's suspense in the mystery of Elder Ayn's death, and surprise in the unfolding of his plan. There's even a neat twist at the end.

James Lovegrove's world building is superb. He succeeds not only in bringing to life an improbable world in which nearly everyone is endowed with a supernormal power, but in convincingly imagining how differently such a world would work. Sails aren't needed where the Water-Inclined can make the ocean obey their will; surgeons aren't required where Fire-Inclined recuperators can heal people from the inside. Heavy labor isn't onerous with Earth-Inclined strongs to do it, and with a network of Air-Inclined telepaths, even a pre-industrial society can have instant communication. Of course, human nature being what it is, some things are very much the same -- including bigotry. People of like Inclinations tend to gather into separate communities, and there's a lot of stereotyping and mutual misunderstanding. The Fire-Inclined dismiss Earth as a lesser Inclination. Earthers resent the incendiaries for their wealth and arrogance. Both Earth and Fire consider the Water unreliable and superstitious, and, from the heights of their power over the intangible, the Air-Inclined look down on everyone. Lovegrove explores these caste prejudices through the differently-Inclined viewpoint characters, who make uncharitable and often inaccurate assumptions about one another, and also through the tragic conflict that occupies much of the middle portion of the book, in which the mostly Earth-Inclined town of Penresford and the mostly Fire-Inclined town of Stammeldon face off in a battle of pride, prejudice, and miscommunication that winds up all but destroying both.

The story is told mainly from the viewpoints of Elder Ayn, Gregory, and Yashu, with occasional forays into secondary viewpoints, including Reehan, Gregory's sociopathic nemesis, and the slightly shifty enshriner Khollo. It's absolutely wonderful characterization -- all these characters step right off the page, especially Elder Ayn, whose peppery first-person account of the journey and what brought him to undertake it forms the backbone of the narrative. Since some events are related from the perspective of more than one person, there's a certain amount of overlap -- but they all see things differently enough to keep the backtracking from becoming dull, and their at-odds perceptions of events and one another reinforce the novel's examination of bigger misunderstandings. Also fascinating are the workings of Elder Ayn's prevision, and its effect on those around him. To what degree does knowing the future shape the future? Is knowing what will happen the same as understanding it? These questions are embodied in the twist at the finish (with the surprise being not so much what, as how and why).

The book comes to a definite close, but plenty of questions remain, and fantasy readers habituated to duologies and trilogies can be forgiven for thinking that there's a sequel in the works. According to the author's web site, however, Worldstorm is a stand-alone. That's a shame; Lovegrove has created an extraordinarily rich and fascinating world, and it would be a pleasure to visit it again.

Copyright © 2006 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.


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