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Christendom
Neil Cross
Vintage, 311 pages

Christendom
Neil Cross
Neil Cross's first novel was Mr. In-Between. He works as Product Manager at Macmillan which, according to him, had no direct link to getting published. He began work at Macmillan as a graduate trainee and earlier worked at Waterstones to finance his masters degree.

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A review by Martin Lewis

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Christendom is one of those science fiction novels that only says Fiction on the back. Sometimes this is a sign that the author has no knowledge of the genre or that they believe in the old "its too good to be sci-fi" cliché (Paul Theroux and P.D. James are two notorious culprits). Luckily though Neil Cross is a different type of author; someone who is at ease employing any trope they see fit in order to serve their story, as exemplified by Jonathan Lethem.

His debut novel, Mr In-Between, was an impressive but flawed thriller with a very British feel. It's mixture of bloody murder and kitchen sink love story is reminiscent of Iain Banks' Complicity, though it is perhaps more morally complex. Unlike Banks, Cross does not rigidly demarcate his fiction into different camps but he is equally at ease writing full blown SF as literary thrillers.

Following a global pandemic, the nation states have collapsed and the world has been plunged into war. Out of this chaos, a single stable state emerges; New Jerusalem, a Christian state that mostly occupies what used to be America but extends around the world through various Reclamations.

Malachi Thorndyke lives in the South Australian Reclamation. Mostly what he does is tend cattle, get drunk and try to forget about the war. On the side though he smuggles books and films that have been deemed heretical and banned by the government. One day he is approached by an elderly couple who want him to take something to New Jerusalem City. Although he does not wish to get involved, it turns out that these people know rather more about him than he would like and they make him an offer he can't refuse.

Thorndyke finds himself inextricably entangled in a massive conspiracy. As with all novels with a dark secret at their heart, the plot slowly unwinds to reveal that central revelation. Although pieces of this secret are tantalisingly exposed for the reader when everything is finally revealed, it is every bit as shocking as the tone of the novel demands.

Like Michael Marshall Smith's Spares and Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music, this is an extremely dark science fiction thriller. Equally, just as those novels hinge on the characterisation of their haunted, impotent protagonists, so too Malachi Thorndyke is the core of Christendom. His first person narrative is an astonishing blend of bitterness and hope, capable of being both callous and tender.

Often revelatory stories employ separate, dovetailing narratives (as recently seen in Alastair Reynolds' Chasm City) and so does Christendom. A poignant counterpoint to Thorndyke's narrative is provided in the form of diary entries by David McArdle, one of the conspirators. For Thorndyke, this man is a symbol of the betrayal of the ideals of New Jerusalem but here he is presented as a family man who has always acted with the best intentions. In many ways they are alike, just as Thorndyke is wracked with guilt at his past actions and his rejection of God so McArdle finds his faith to have been ultimately hollow:

"I will have lived a life wherein I did not for a passing moment understand the things I believed, or why it was I came to believe them. If there is the potential of some solace in this statement, its whereabouts are a mystery to me."
Faith is the main substance of this book. Whilst the book is rich with theology (a subject Cross studied at degree level,) it is the raw essence of faith that is most important here. All the great and terrible things that come to pass in the book are the result of that ineffable quality.

Christendom is remarkably well written book and an impressive progression. With this novel Cross shows himself to be a writer of the skill and versatility of Jonathan Lethem and Rupert Thomson. His next book is to be eagerly anticipated.

Copyright © 2002 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in South London; he is originally from Bradford, UK. He writes book reviews for The Telegraph And Argus.


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