Far beneath the surface of Callespa, a satellite orbiting the gas giant Beyl, a huge war rages between the Gurta and the Eskarans. Callespa's subterranean world is large enough to contain countries, seas, and even alien species such as the Ehru, a cetacean race who have little contact with the others, and a myriad of different cultures. The politics of this world are labyrinthine, and made even more complex by the Clans, who interfere in international politics and start and wage wars for their own profit.
During one of the battles, Orna, a warrior, is captured, but not before she has witnessed the death of her husband. Unconscious, then grief-stricken and drugged into apathy when she awakes, she is transported to a prison from which there seems no escape. She manages to rouse herself only when one of the dozen men with whom she shares a cell tries to rape her and she half kills him.
From the starting point of her husband Rynn's death, Orna's story also progresses backwards through the graduation of her son, Jai, at the Academy, her last few missions before that, then her pregnancy, her marriage, and even the childhood massacres that led to her becoming a slave. For Orna is indentured: her whole life, her husband and her son's, all are property of the Clan Carcassa, and just how totally they are owned by the Clan is only slowly revealed.
The quarter of the novel that is backfill is interwoven with the main narrative, as Orna gradually begins to return to her old self, and take stock of her situation. She realizes that she has the means to save her son from the treachery that cost her husband his life, but to do so, she must escape from a supposedly inescapable fortress; in the process of working out how to achieve this she becomes attached to Feyn, a native of the planet's boiling surface, and escapes with him and Nereith, another inmate.
The Fade is a masterfully blended gumbo, from which every so often some Mystery Meat surfaces that leads the reader to think Aha, that passage reminds me of Chris Priest, or David Masson.
What's more interesting than checking the possible influences on the beautifully worked-out baroque societies that Wooding introduces us to, is the break-neck speed at which we are dragged through them; The Fade has the intensity of Varley's "Air Raid" or any Ellison short-story without the-guts-on-the-typewriter-keyboard self-revelation of the latter, and for it to be sustained over 312 pages without the reader ever feeling that Wooding is in danger of losing control is a significant achievement.
Plot flows from character, and character flows from plot. Orna's intensity comes first of all from the race against time, as she knows—as do all the prisoners—that when she has been sucked dry of information she will be executed. Later, when she has escaped, the pace picks up still further, driven by her intense desire to save her son. It's this motivator, under-utilized in genre fiction, that is one of the distinguishing features of The Fade.
As Orna and her companions flee the citadel across fields of lava, Wooding gradually develops a romantic sub-plot spiced with guilt and ambiguity which adds an unexpected tenderness and considerable depth to Orna and Feyn's characters.
Swept up, carried away, I have no idea of why I do what I do next, but I do it anyway.
With my good hand, I grab Feyn's head by his hair, tip his mouth up to mine, and I kiss him, hard.
The moment—and it's only a moment—is strange. There's no beard and his lips are so thin and soft, not like Rynn's. There's the taste of him, foreign, not like any Eskaran I've ever kissed. Everything is unfamiliar, and everything is wrong, and even before I notice that he's not responding, I realize that it's a mistake but I still couldn't help it. (p. 166)
Speculative fiction tends to steer clear of middle-aged widows aching for younger men, and when the trope is mined, as by Terry Pratchett, it's usually more for laughs than pathos. That Orna's lust is also tainted by guilt at her body's betrayal of a loved one is rare enough to make it worthy of remark. Feyn's reaction is sufficiently ambiguous to leave the unresolved sexual tension simmering throughout the novel, even after the two are separated.
The Fade takes its name from one of the revenants that haunt the tunnels of Callespa, and to which Orna initially compares herself. However, the term has another meaning, analogous to a stalking horse through which assassins such as Orna reach their target, and it gradually becomes clear that both meanings of the term have a deeper symbolism.
The novel really takes off in its second half, as to shorten the journey, Orna and Feyn race upwards—hotly pursued by troops from the fortress—onto Callespa's seemingly uninhabitable surface. Coming after so many claustrophobic, confined scenes, the moment of eclipse as the fugitives break cover is stunning:
And above it all, the sky. The terrible sky.
The horizon is dominated by the colossal presence of Beyl, the mother-planet, looming before us as we burst from the cave, and begin to slip and slide down the mountainside. She's a vast orb of black and purple and green, banded with darkly glowing clouds of poison, flickering with storms the size of continents. She dwarfs our little moon, so massive that she snuffs out the risen sun. The last vestiges of the sun's light are dwindling as her enormous bulk slides across it.
Halflight. The false night brought on when the mother-planet eclipses one or both of our suns. But it won't last long (p.154).
For a few pages Orna and Feyn convalesce with one of the tribes of his people, but the interlude is temporary, and before long Orna returns to the depths of Callespa, where plot and counterplot, past and present weave inexorably toward a stunning conclusion, as Wooding plays the shell-game of what Orna (and therefore the reader) knows with dazzling sleight-of-hand. To reveal all about the conspiracy would be to plot-spoil unforgivably, but suffice it to say that few of Wooding's predecessors—not Alfred Bester, nor the more baroque but less driven Charles Harness—ever reached the intensity of Jacobean revenge tragedy that Wooding achieves with The Fade.
One reveal that will not spoil the plot is that Wooding has no interest in Baxter-esque scientific world-building; we are given the length of the day and year, that Beyl orbits two suns, and everything else is pure description. It's this stubborn refusal to deal in hard data that has led to The Fade being classified as fantasy as it zig-zags backwards and forwards across the borderline with science fiction, although most readers will in any event find such marketing-driven pigeonholes all but irrelevant.
What is relevant is that in a year that seems to have seen ever-greater homogenization of new novels, The Fade is a welcome reaffirmation that good new novelists can find deals with major publishers. Whether The Fade is fantasy or science fiction, it's quite simply the best speculative fiction novel of 2007 that I've read.
Colin Harvey is the author of the novels Vengeance, Lightning Days, and The Silk Palace. He is currently working on Blind Faith, a thriller with the slightest speculative twist, set in Brighton in July 2005. He also has a day job, but it’s not very interesting.