Canadian author Holly Phillips has already been nominated for a World Fantasy Award, for her debut short story collection In the Palace of Repose (2005). With the publication of her second full-length novel, The Engine's Child, expect to see Ms. Phillips's name on the shortlist once more.
Steady rain falls upon the rasnan—the name Phillips's characters give to the single island that makes up their entire world. The constant imagery of deluge and implied threat of flood is no accident. Created by men and women who destroyed their original home-world through a series of magical and technological abuses, the rasnan is always one step away from a disaster of Biblical proportions. Overcrowded, run by a rigid orthodoxy and ruled by lordly houses whose members enjoy the benefits of clean water and electricity while the lower classes struggle and die in brutal slum cities, the world of The Engine's Child recalls any number of legends (Atlantis, Rome, Sodom) of civilizations on the brink of collapse.
At its most basic, the novel is a story of binaries. Rich against poor (and visa versa) dictates a large part of the plot, but close behind comes the struggle of young against old, freedom against confinement, spirit against earth. It's a struggle reflected in the very geography of the rasnan—a mere spit of land in a vast ocean—but also in Phillips's evocative prose. A long quote illustrates this best. In the passage below young Moth—a slum-dwelling priestess capable of harnessing the power of the mundab (the spiritual realm outside the rasnan's stifling orthodoxy)—observes her inherited "world of halves":
The street that divided the bastion was also the end of the great inland road that strung together the city and the countryside, the shadras and the hardras, the two halves that made up the rasnan that was both island and world. And like an electric cable plugged into its source, the road's end became a bridge and the bridge, with its white stone and its polished lamps, sprang away from the shore and arced—electric ribbon, stony spark—across the water to the towers in the bay. The towers that both generated and consumed all the wealth in the rasnan. The towers that rose up ghostly and shining in the rain from the foam-toothed reef far out at the seaward edge of the bay. A world of halves, Moth thought. It should be the first lesson every novice learned. Scholarium and fort make the bastion. Bastion and bay make shadras. Shadras and hadaras make the rasnan. Rasnan, the known human world of the island, and mundab, the vast unknown of the uncharted ocean make ... what? But there the catechism had to end, for to the priests and the common people—to all the people of the rasnan—the mundab made nothing. It was the forbidden, the unknowable, the unknown. (The Engine's Child, ARC, p. 16)
Moth, whose rebel heart finds no solace in a belief system that offers only prayers to her starving people, seeks to liberate them by channeling the power of the mundab into a giant engine—a device with the power to save the rasnan.
The exact purpose, function and even shape of the engine is something Phillips reveals only slowly. Her story unfolds like a great dark flower, one petal at a time. The concepts underpinning her world are gradually made clear through the interaction of her characters. Moth, our heroine, finds herself pulled between the manipulations of Lord Ghar, a politician working to return civilization to the way it was before mankind fled to the rasnan, and Lady Vashmarna, his more forward thinking rival who may or may not share Moth's agenda to free the people from their increasingly desperate living arrangement. When ghostly "manifests" begin to haunt the city streets, both Lord Ghar and Lady Vashmarna fear the rasnan has fallen out of favor with its gods. But the policies they adopt to combat this perceived fall soon have the city mired in outbreaks of plague and violence.
Phillip's characters are every bit as complex and interesting as the world around them. Moth, delighting in her command of untold power without truly understanding it is a refreshing heroine. Scenes between her and her lover Aramis—by rasnan law, their love (and the threat of procreation it presents) is a crime—are tender and touching. Lady Vashmarna, a beloved leader with a secretive past, is a character of so many delicate shadings readers will want to analyze her actions more than once. And the supporting cast, particularly Moth's rebel girl-friends Silk and Hamana, add both needed lightness and necessary antagonism to the tale. If not all the secondary characters read like full-fledged people it hardly matters. The drama between the primary characters is more than enough to keep you breathlessly turning pages, rooting for Moth and Aramis to stay alive as famine, disease and the ghostly assaults of the manifests turn their world on its precarious head.
What allows Phillips to bind so many heady concepts and narrative threads into such a seductive yarn, however, is the prose itself, which anchors the reader in a sensual world of rain-drenched streets, lush rooftop gardens and creaky ships. While occasionally vague (how does one describe the spiritual emptiness of a void between worlds?) Phillips's style is never less than spellbinding, flowing as sinuously as the water eddying about the rasnan's rocky shores.
The engine stood tall enough to look her in the eye, cold, strange, powerful, deformed. It was not aware but it began to stir, woken by her awareness. Slowly, slowly the wheel turned, blinking the imagined eye. Slowly, slowly the drive shafts groped for a propeller that was not there. Gears and armature turned deep within, a complex dance so ponderous that Moth felt the shrine tilt into dizziness around her, as if it were the world that tried to turn on too many axes, and the engine that stood still.
As if it were the engine that could turn the world. (p. 327)
A switch to first person each time Moth reaches out to the vast power of the mundab is another effective technique that again sets off the underlying war of binaries within the story. A human woman harnessing supernatural power, using magic to fuel technology, trapped between earth and sea, between past sins and present turmoil, between the spiritual and the terrestrial, between anarchist rebels and faulty bureaucrats, between mounting destruction and the promise of salvation ... The Engine's Child is a skilled balancing act. And Phillips is a writer of vision and grace.
Hannah Strom-Martin's short story "Father Pena's Last Dance" appeared in the 2009 Halloween issue of Realms of Fantasy.