Since I won’t normally be reviewing books here, I thought I’d make my first entry a book review.
The book is Chris Roberson’s Paragaea.
The book involves a female cosmonaut falling through a hole in space to land on a Pangaea-like continent on a parallel Earth full of various kinds of human, human animal hybrids (“metamankind”: jaguar-men, snake-men, fish-men, crocodile-men etc.), a couple of demi-mortal androids and a forbidden city of high science-magic. Metal is rare, but technology is not necessarily low. There are air-ships, preyed upon by pterosaur-riding air-pirates, sword-fights, nomadic nations on sea (“the Drift”) and land (“Roam”), a metallic forest of highly but bizarrely intelligent trees, etc. The cosmonaut has to fight her way through most of this stuff to get back home to peace-loving peoples of the Soviet Republics. Roberson has invented a wonderful world and sketched out some interesting figures in it: the ostensible lead character, Akilina Mikhhailovna Chirikova (Lina); Balam, the exiled ruler of the jaguar-men (who are mostly women, it seems); Hieronymus Bonaventure, a swashbuckling lieutenant in the 18th C. British navy who also fell through a hole to Paragaea.
What’s not to like?
Unfortunately, there is a great deal not to like in the book. I hate to say this, as I badly wanted to praise Paragaea, and it does have some great things in it. But…
Roberson is a careless and often inept stylist. Characters frequently “sigh a sigh” or “dream a dream” or “VERB a COGNATE-NOUN”, and excess verbiage of that type is a hallmark of Roberson’s style. One character cycles between dog-Latin and ineptly constructed archaic English, for no very clear reason. More importantly, Roberson’s bland indefinite descriptions and his addiction to clichés take the world out of focus, make it harder to see what he’s talking about.
Still, that would be a minor problem if the storytelling were there. It’s not. One example. The heroes go to the bizarre society of the Roaming Empire, a vast nomadic city. Pages of exposition are spent on the place. Once there, one of the characters goes offscreen (as it were) to get horses for the next stage of their journey, and they leave. I am not making this up. Roberson has invented the weird and intriguing society, but never tells a story using it which, in a nutshell, is his problem throughout the book. At the end of the novel, in a development set up with unusual care, the forbidden city of Atla has been breached and an army of metamen (including the daughter of one of the protagonists) is raging through the city. It would be nice to know how this works out, but we don’t because Roberson leaves the reader hanging.
The adventure, too, is often lacking in adventurousness. The heroes go to the Temple of the Forgotten God and fight through a dungeon full of useless monsters to reach the heart of the temple where a rather pompous android named Benu is resurrecting himself. The monsters are meant to keep people out of this place that Benu returns to once every thousand years. (Why not just shut the door behind you and lock it? Who tends the giant scorpion etc. in the thousand years between Benu’s visits? I know, I know: If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts etc.) The heroes defeat all the challenges with such off-handed ease that they themselves seem bored. Why should the reader be interested? This one wasn’t.
In summary, there was some wonderful stuff here, but the story just didn’t work. When and if Roberson figures out how to conduct a story worthy of his splendid background he’ll be someone to reckon with. But, based on Paragaea, he’s not there yet.
Those who disagree can find more Roberson goodness (including an entire novel about Hieronymus Bonaventure) at http://www.chrisroberson.net/