|Shrine of Stars|
|Paul J. McAuley|
|HarperCollins Eos, 384 pages|
|A review by Rich Horton
In the first volume, Child of the River, McAuley sketched a strange world with many wonders, and introduced an intriguing main character, Yamamanama (fortunately called Yama by most of the characters). This world, Confluence, is an artificial construct, built thousands of years ago at the behest of the Preservers (apparently descendants of Earth humans), by their servants, the Builders. The Preservers then populated the world with thousands of "bloodlines" (apparently "uplifted" animals) as well as the "indigenous" races (apparently aliens of some variety). In the first volume, all this is presented as mythic history, and the book has the feel of fantasy. Yama, it is hinted, is the last remnant of the bloodline of the Builders. He sets out on a journey up the huge River of Confluence to the capital city, Ys, while a long war rages on between the Heretics and the established authority of Confluence.
In book 2, Ancients of Days, the nature of Confluence becomes a bit clearer. The "uplifted" bloodlines, over time, achieve sentience, or self-consciousness, and undergo a "Change" into full "humanity." The Change is often followed by a resulting Change War, in which the newly uplifted members of a bloodline may exterminate their backward brothers. The Heretics, influenced by a renegade Preserver who returned to Confluence long ago, promote continual Change, with the added feature of a sort of radical individualist philosophy: in reaction to the original nature of Confluence, in which all the bloodlines lived in a sort of stasis, acting almost instinctively, the Heretics support continual change and a situation in which no one acts for the benefit of others. Or so McAuley seems to assert. Yama, in company with his faithful companion Pandaras, and a varying cast of other helpers, flees Ys and heads back down the River to where the war is being fought, trying to escape Prefect Corin, who serves the established authorities, and Dr. Dismas, who wishes Yama to help the heretics. Yama learns a great deal about his powers, which include control over the machines of Confluence and the ability to lift bloodlines into the Change. The novel shows his encounters with an avatar of the renegade Preserver who started the Heretic movement, his eventual return to the city of his birth and a last meeting with his beloved father, the Aedile of Aeolis.
Many mysteries introduced in the first two volumes are slowly dispelled in the third. But in Shrine of Stars, McAuley actually delivers on the implied promise of the first two books: the nature of Confluence, the nature of Yama and the answers to the mysteries of the first two books are all revealed in logical and satisfying ways. In the end, the three books are clearly, unambiguously, far future science fiction, in a way that such models as Jack Vance's The Dying Earth and Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun are not quite. This is both good and bad, but it seems to be entirely McAuley's intention. That is, the unanswered mysteries and the religious symbolism of Wolfe's great tetralogy are a feature certainly intended by the author -- and, in many ways, they enhance the book. This may be the reason I still consider Wolfe's series better than The Book of Confluence, or it may be simply that as good a writer as McAuley is -- and he's quite good -- Wolfe is slightly better. But at any rate, such comparisons, though inevitable, aren't quite fair to McAuley's work: in the end, he has written an individual work, with its own plan, its own intentions, and I think he succeeds marvellously.
Shrine of Stars, thus, follows Yama and Pandaras after they are separated. Yama begins to be possessed by a machine implanted in his body, while Pandaras tries to find Yama, unwillingly bringing Prefect Corin back on Yama's trail. After many trials, Yama comes to full understanding of himself and of his fate. There are very explicit religious echoes (including a plan for Yama to be executed on a structure of wood), but even as McAuley emphasizes these echoes, he provides rational and consistent explanations for them all. Finally Yama must make a journey off Confluence to another planet, and he must come to a solution to the problem of the future of the bloodlines of Confluence that deals with the apparent coming destruction of Confluence. His solution is satisfying, and McAuley neatly wraps up the series with an ending that is perhaps reminiscent of Charles Harness, only a bit more logical. This is one of the better extended works of SF in the last years of this century, in many ways a fine capstone for a long history of "far future" SF.
Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.
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