Marketed as a stand-alone novel in Jaine Fenn's Hidden Empire series, Consorts of Heaven finds it difficult to stand at all. What could have been a joyride of a planetary romance with a refreshing dash of fantasy instead allows itself to get bogged down in its own politics and back-story, leaving a medley of undeveloped characters clinging to the skeleton of a depthless and slow-paced plot. If for some reason, despite this warning, you do feel inclined to read it, be aware that this review contains a few major spoilers.
Initially set in a backwater village on a primitive dystopian world, the story begins with an unconscious stranger nursed back to health by the local healer, Kerin. A victim of inexplicable, very convenient amnesia, the stranger names himself Sais and immediately makes it his mission to discover his hidden past. Thankfully, he has the help of Kerin and her "skyfool" son, an autistic child with the ability to mentally manipulate matter. Together they travel to the theocratic capital of the world only to discover that the planet's entire culture is a conspiracy devised by aliens to keep the populace under control. All in all, the plot of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village (2004), except with spaceships.
It is not until over half way through the novel that the illusion of fantasy land is replaced by the "gritty truth" of science fiction, the plunge taking place within the space of a single paragraph. This not only allows the reader to experience the traumatic confusion that the novel's characters are undoubtedly going through, but also divides the novel into two distinct, almost completely separate halves. Section one is dedicated wholeheartedly to world building and back story, so much so that the plot grinds almost to a halt. Sais's favourite phrase—"Actually Kerin, I can't quite remember" (p. 55)—is used to great effect as an excuse to thrust more and more of the planet's culture upon the reader with about as much subtlety as a history lesson force-fed through a tube. Characters and minor events come and go without having achieved anything of significance. Instead they exist solely to lavish attention on the world's hierarchical society, which is unfortunately far from original.
After this fantastical tour is complete, a moment of realisation causes the genre to switch to sf and meticulously explains away the entire first twenty chapters. Everything prior to this epiphany is rendered pointless, everything afterwards lacks plausibility. All the intricate belief systems and traditions are justified, often in an over-the-top and convoluted manner. "What could he say?" wonders Sais, "Your entire world is a sick experiment administered by malicious aliens for an unknown purpose?" (p. 222). Questions are answered which have not been raised and resolution occurs before the reader is even aware of any conflict, leaving behind the residue of a confused and incoherent plot.
The voices of the novel, specifically those of Kerin, Sais and Einon are equally unsatisfying, being little more than disembodied tour guides. "I find this hard to believe" (p. 224) and "This all seems like a lot of trouble for them to go to" (p. 223) are Kerin's only doubts regarding Sais's conspiracy theory. She speedily discounts her entire way of life based on the words of a fevered stranger fresh from a coma. At best this is a disturbing act of a desperately open-minded woman, though it's sketchily-enough rendered that it seems more like the hand of the author, attempting to speed the plot along after a hundred or so pages of nothing really happening.
Sais, on the other hand, is a nauseatingly flawless paragon of gentility, virtue and egalitarianism. He comes across more as the embodiment of an ideal than an actual person, his most memorable line being, "Damn this sexist world" (p. 251). The only obstacle he really has to overcome is his loss of memory, the single device that gives the book substance. To achieve this he uses two more convenient attributes: sheer dumb luck and an affinity for coincidence. Aside from conquering his amnesia, though, he undergoes no character development whatsoever and remains stubbornly unaffected by the world around him. There is in fact very little to convince the reader that Sais is human at all and not some sort of soulless automaton.
It is worth considering what Fenn has set out to do in this novel, however. Featuring only the villains of her first book, Principles of Angels (2008), Consorts of Heaven has very little in common with its predecessor. Whereas Principles relied on fast-paced character interaction and seedy underworld adventure, Consorts relies more on a single moment of realisation. The purpose of the epiphany is not to enlighten, but to unsettle and invite questions of any constant belief system. A society in which everything can be read as a method of control paints a clear cut picture of exactly who the villains are.
So there's a lot riding on one moment, and though it succeeds in shaking the foundations of patriarchy, it also comes across as reductive, and unfortunately overwhelms the subtler aspects of the novel. The sharp transition from fantasy to science fiction also spawns a myriad of cracks in the plot. The novel's momentum and characters are compromised and development is replaced with endless clarification and half baked politics. Everything has to be explained perfectly, which unfortunately creates a feeling of artificiality, leaving nothing to the imagination. Characters don't come to life, simply twitch slightly at the hands of their too-obvious puppet master.
Thankfully, though, the novel does have a small number of redeeming qualities. Fenn's blunt and economical style of writing makes for an easy and accessible read. "Bad smell: acrid and harsh. Constriction. He was under a heavy, stiff covering. Weight pressed against his side. He was trapped. Have to get free!" (p. 18) Unembellished language such as this is used to great effect to convey the experiences of each character, though managing to sustain it throughout such an uneventful narrative is a feat in itself.
A few passages are conveyed with enough originality to stand apart. Breaking the pattern of Kerin's family history, for example, is heavily symbolic of her growing independence and resistance to the patriarchal society that surrounds her. In Kerin's world, rape is not only socially acceptable, it is a "sacr'd dooty" (p. 149) to repopulate the world after bouts of disease. Both her grandmother and mother have been impregnated against their wills, one by a priest and the other by a village leader. When it comes to Kerin's turn though, she very literally twists her attacker's manhood against him, escaping by the skin of her teeth. This is done in a way which questions the reader without talking at them, as contrasted to Sais's in-your-face one-liners: "I know you're strong enough to save yourself" (p. 169) and "I'm not going to ask you to do anything you don't want to—not ever!" (p. 297)
Similarly, observations made by the priest Einon display a disturbing inability to imagine life without the systems of control that govern it:
Much of the creed Einon had lived his life by still remained true. Below, men ruled women: above, women had dominion over men. T'was ever so, and finding the true nature of Heaven did nothing to change the natural order. (p. 293)
This sardonic, tongue in cheek passage is one of the few points at which a characters is allowed to voice themselves fully, representing the world as they perceive it, regardless of how warped this perception is.
And despite the paradigm shift, Consorts of Heaven reads as if it is afraid to break out of itself. The plot is boxed in from the rest of the series, with nothing leaving or entering. Characters exist only in "adventure time" and are not allowed to develop to their full potential. It's almost too stand-alone. Nothing that occurs within the timeframe of the novel will have any effect on its sequel and the action is kept strictly local so as not to interfere with the rest of the universe. The book's antagonists for example, the mysterious Sidhe, appear only in small numbers and are conveniently killed off before they can establish contact with the rest of their race. This self-contained plot would be fine were it not for the peppering of pointless nods towards the outside world, giving a false impression of continuity. Characters from Principles are mentioned again and again, though they have no part to play in Consorts itself. Small events similarly have no effect on the overall story, serving only as digressions, such as the storm which almost claims Sais's life but has no overall consequences. The novel ambles steadily forwards. As well as this, attempting to appeal to both readers of fantasy and science fiction unfortunately produces nothing more than a dichotomy, glued together by a cast who don't get any room to breathe. Altogether, Consorts of Heaven spreads itself far too thinly, setting itself a number of rigid goals which end up stifling the rest of the novel. The fact that it is segregated from the rest of the series may even be a blessing in disguise. At least this way there is still some hope for the follow-up.
Peter Whitfield is a student living in the North-East of England.