In Astra, Naomi Foyle's first book in her Gaia Chronicles, we followed the titular character through her first seventeen years as she learned that the perfect world she was shown in her homeland of Is-land wasn't, as you'd probably expect, necessarily so perfect. As a child, she was expected to get her "security serum shot," but her foster mother, Hokma, asked her not to. The security shot was meant to make Astra stronger, both physically and emotionally, as well as smarter; but, as Hokma explains, it also makes people less sensitive and more obedient. Ultimately Astra chooses to not get the shot and as this is done under the radar she is forced to continue to live with this secret, faking the effects it should have as much as possible. Unsurprisingly, the secret comes out along with others and she is evicted from Is-land and moved to Non-land to work at the CONC embassy—CONC being the Council of New Continents, a sort of interstellar EU.
Although Astra followed these familiar, some might say clichéd, beats, it was still engaging due to the strength of the characters—and left enough of a hook in your brain to make you want to see what happens next. Rook Song follows on a few months later, then, and we join Astra working in her new job in the CONC laundry. She is a beaten-down version of the Astra from the first book, in constant pain after extensive memory pacification treatment from the Is-Land military, IMBOD, which causes her to almost pass out whenever she thinks about something IMBOD doesn't want her to consider. She gets the chance to relieve the pain after being offered medicine and political refugee status, but at first she mistrusts everyone—especially the doctor—because of her mistreatment in Is-land. Because of the political fall-out from the events of the first book, and those bubbling under in Rook Song, Astra in this way starts out lethargic and mistrusting—and the first act of this book becomes equally lethargic and leaden in an unfortunate mirroring of Astra’s state of mind. Maybe it is intentional, but it certainly does the book no favours.
The politics that abound through much of the book mean that a similarly sized portion of the novel is given over to endless info spurts, and exposition is spread liberally all over the page. This is rarely the greatest foundation on which to build a book, and it certainly feels at times that Rook Song has been padded out with a great deal of unnecessary political posturing to hammer home the fact that its characters exist in a highly volatile situation. A perfect example of this comes when an emergency diplomatic meeting is called:
N-LA has cooperated fully with CONC's demands for demilitarisation' the Lead Convener said, gold-tipped forefinger aloft. "We now return CONC's full moral and financial support for our independence bid. To start with we expect CONC to fund substantial compensation for all Non-Land victims . . . " (RS, p.135)
It goes on like this, the whole chapter devoted to info dumps, and the novel's first two hundred or so pages suffering from a bit of Phantom Menace-itis.
Something else that doesn’t help ingratiate Rook Song to the reader is the addition of many characters' voices. The book is split into chapters headed by only a character’s name, meaning that at times we skip from Astra's viewpoint to those of characters major and minor who have little or no bearing on the outcome of the plot, or who are just plain dull. A case in point is the Asar chapters. A deafblind "seer" who, while pivotal in the story itself, brings nothing to the story in his own voice, one of Asar's chapters is almost comical, with its words shaped into a penis, or "big hard finger" as Asar calls it, for no apparent reason at all. Again, these are chapters that could have easily been lopped off for a much less disjointed read: in an attempt to introduce new characters and new viewpoints, Foyle manages to lose focus—and while trying to effectively tell her complicated tale she often only succeeds in taking momentum away. Maybe this problem could have been avoided if Foyle hadn’t tied herself to telling the story in first person.
Thankfully, the action picks up once Astra is let out of the compound and starts searching for her estranged father. Along the way she meets her shelter sister/childhood friend Lilutu, who tries to convince Astra that she is the saviour of Is-land and the living embodiment of a god—and that there is a whole movement ready to believe the same thing.
The most interesting thread in the book, however, is the slow building tension between the Is-land military, particularly the sec-gens—the generation that did receive the security shots—and the Non-land rebels, the Youth Action Collective led by a young beat poet called Enki Arrakia.
In a sharp contrast to the gentleness found in the first book and the slow build of Rook Song's first third, the events that unfold between the sec-gens and the rebel group are horrific, with Foyle refusing to sugar-coat any of the war scenes. In fact, thanks to the sec-gens berserker gene, they actually become capable of actions which tip things over the edge into horror porn. Towards the end of the book they have an orgy while devouring a member of the rebel group:
How dare it insult them? . . . [T]he whole squad was laughing, howling, playfully gnawing at him until everything was a sticky blur of bodies brawling and squatting, humping and pummelling . . . Who bit the thing first? He didn't know but someone squeezed its tit, clamped a mouth round the rocketing nipple, tore back, mouth black with blood . . . but [it] was all over too soon. The thing was gone, nothing but a few scraps strewn all over the soil . . . (RS pp. 459-60)
This can only be included as an amplified metaphor for the horrors of war and how young people are brainwashed into following a government's manifesto no matter what; and it certainly hits all the right shock buttons to make you sit up and take notice.
One of the main themes that runs through both books is sex, and in the case of the sec-gens it is used to show them reverting to their animal state—although they see it as simply taking their society's free-thinking attitudes to sex to extremes. In the third book of the series, The Blood of the Hoopoe, however, the theme of sex becomes even more sinister for the sec-gens, particularly in the case of Astra's shelter brother Peat, who falls under the thrall of his commanding officer, Clay Odinson, who can seem horribly out of place. Whereas other characters are subtle, for Odinson Foyle seems to have broken out the big, thick neon pens and written: "Look at this guy! He’s bad! Look how naughty he’s being!" Peat, for instance, is ultimately taken on as Odinson's pet, chained and caged. Such is the junior officer's enforced loyalty at this point that he accepts this humiliation, wants it, and will do anything to get it.
In Astra's story, however, sex remains pure: a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that she is being set up to be a God. Astra gets caught up in the war elsewhere when she makes friends with Uttu, one of her workmates in the laundry. She goes and visits her family, then later returns to find the sec-gens have ransacked the house and killed Astra's friend and captured most of the family, leaving only Muzi: a young shepherd, traumatised by his family's capture and his grandmother’s murder.
As her relationship with Muzi develops, the sex they indulge in, although Astra at first sees it as a natural but ultimately common thing due to her upbringing in Is-Land, becomes a more intimate experience than she expects.
Perhaps this renewed focus results from a reduction in the number of relevant characters in Hoopoe: Astra and Muzi are the main focus, with Peat and Enki being the principal secondary characters. This reduction makes for a much smoother read, which is not to say Foyle ceases to challenge. What continues to make the novel ever more horrific, but reflects what must go through some soldiers' heads, is the normality with which the sec-gens and the rebels talk about the things they see and do. When a sec-gen refers to the murder of Muzi's grandmother they are reassured that it was normal, and, when the rebels manage to decapitate some of the sec-gens, the man who does so is held up as a hero and the heads are held hostage, displayed on spikes.
In Rook Song, Astra begins the book alone. In Hoopoe, however, Foyle changes the emphasis and focuses more on the characters' relationships. In Rook Song, Astra, taken from everything she knows, has to build trust with people and make new friends. The main thread of the book is her search for her father, as she makes contact with her shelter sister, Lilutu, for clues and ultimately sets out on her journey with Muzi at the end of the book, a journey we rejoin and follow in Hoopoe. The refocusing of Hoopoe transitions this slightly stalled story into a much more engaging format, and the characters once more take the limelight, becoming infinitely more interesting than the political background.
One character at the heart of Hoopoe, however, does not help. This is Gaia herself, or more specifically the animals that Astra encounters on her journey—with which she finds herself able to communicate, and which warn her of the dangers the human race are hurtling towards. They lay out Astra's mission, as the embodiment of Istar, and it is here that Hoopoe does lose its way a little, or maybe takes its first turn towards what the actual destination of the Gaia Chronicles is to be. It is the first major tonal shift that the series takes, away from the coming-of-age story in the first book, the political machinations of Rook Song, even the complex relationship stories that flow through much of Hoopoe. With Gaia's emergence we get much more of a fantasy-oriented story, the first real indication that the goddess the characters believe in is real and not just a religion they have developed to keep themselves sane. When the animals start talking things go awry:
When the voices came she didn't so much hear as absorb them, as if the deep bell tolling in her stomach was transmitting slow, silent messages up through her body and brain.
Ah. You are listening at last. We have been waiting for you to listen. For days our white scales burned in the shade, the Earth's pulse quickened in our bellies, the birds wheeled and whisked in alarm. (TBotH, p. 25)
This new angle makes Hoopoe seem like a book from a different series entirely. It is hard to tell if this a good thing, because the turn raises the debate about whether a series of books should evolve to a point where the end bears very little resemblance to the beginning. Or should a set of novels remain consistent, each book a comforting bed for their loyal followers?
Each argument has its virtues. But as it is, Foyle, has made a brave choice, and one that could easily lose her readers: it makes for an uncomfortable journey through her world, with each new book requiring the reader to accept a new approach to both structure and tone. It is another kind of unevenness, however, which means that, taken as a whole, the Gaia Chronicles thus far has been a frustrating read. Rook Song, while essential to the overall story arc and introducing pivotal characters, for the most part reads like one giant footnote, only there to explain what is going on in preparation for Hoopoe. It simply doesn't entertain or enthral in the same way as the other books. This is a shame because Astra and Hoopoe, and especially the latter, are excellent in their differing realisations of Foyle's world and the characters within it.
There is no doubt that Naomi Foyle is an excellent writer. When she is on top of her game she can amuse, horrify, and pull at your heartstrings in equal measure. Her descriptions of Is-land and Non-land are extremely vivid, her skills as a poet translating into enchantingly lyrical prose throughout most of these books. But it feels that in an effort to do each character justice, and to hammer home the political aspects of her stories, she has at times spent too much energy worrying about the small details—and let them get in the way of what is otherwise an excellent series. One can only hope that in book four Foyle can continue to tell her complicated tale without taking away from its considerable momentum.