I’ll begin by saying that I plan to read the next book in this series (to be released in January). My reactions to this debut novel are mixed, but, at the end of the day, I’ve bought in. That said, The Promise of the Child dragged for me. My attention flagged repeatedly, even when I was just twenty pages from the end. In part, I want to read the next book because, while Toner never left me confused, it took significant effort to become fluent in his world and I want more pay-out on that work. That’s not to say that Toner hasn’t yet rewarded my efforts as a reader: although I often found the book slow, I also often felt that Toner had taught me a new language and that I was lucky to have a whole, lush world of remarkably novel sensations to play in. I want more of that.
Toner is gifted in knowing how to make a grotesque, bizarre world feel conceptually possible; this is not "hard sci-fi"—how could anything set in the 147th century be hard science fiction? Toner has, quite deliberately, set the story so far in the future that current science barely applies. Yet he also creates a world that feels more like a meticulously built invention than a dreamy sketch. I may not be privy to every detail of how the Amaranthine Spectrum works, but I sense the rigor of the systems that govern Toner’s world.
Some SF hangs itself on one slick concept, as in The Matrix’s (1999) Matrix. Toner instead succeeds by putting together a vast number of small, carefully detailed inventions to create something simultaneously fantastical and logical. Toner has created a believable world in which there is no alien life, but there is an empirically discoverable soul; an empire populated by vastly different races engineered from humanity, some dwarves, some giants, some living in bountiful post-scarcity gardens where eggs grow on trees, others living in grinding poverty; sharks with faces that remind characters of themselves; ships that look like those sharks; a secret to faster-than-light travel so simple that the poorest mercenary can use it to tear through the universe; robot ghosts; 12,000-year-old immortals.
These latter characters are no longer known as humans, but rather as Amaranthines. The Amaranthines call themselves Immortals, but drowning or a sharp fall can kill them. They are a privileged, elite class, occupied largely with draping themselves in lavish clothing and attempting to keep the political situation of the universe balanced so that they retain their place at the top. It can’t last. The alliances involved are becoming increasingly unstable, the worlds are burning, and the system of putting rule in the hands of the eldest living Amaranthine has come back to bite them viciously (what were they thinking, anyway?): the eldest seems not to be an immortal human at all, but rather some ancient, deeply uncanny being.
The factions involved in the power struggle consist of various "prism" races, humanoid beings which one Amaranthine thinks of as "fairy tale grotesques" (p. 77). These races aren’t grotesque to themselves, of course. In fact, one giant feels his life would be a great deal easier if everyone wasn’t falling all over him for his great beauty. The plot focuses primarily on just three characters, each of a different race: a basically decent Amaranthine caught up in political maneuverings; a young, sheltered heir to a small provincial property; and a hapless inventor of a terrible machine. In the Amaranthine's case, their twelve thousand years of memories stretch back to an earth not too different from our own: through their dreams and memories we are also taken backwards, closer to home.
All this makes for considerable complexity, and I considered before dismissing the idea that the reason I often couldn’t engage with the story might be that the pleasures of this book were chiefly intellectual. Perhaps as someone who likes emotionally driven stories, and who sees conceptual science fiction as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, I was struggling to play the game of a novel primarily for those who want to think their way through Toner's world. The truth, though, is that, although there is plenty to engage the intellect, the pleasures of The Promise of the Child are above all pleasures of feeling. A large part of how Toner succeeds in making his world persuasive is in creating such a vivid sensory/aesthetic experience of his world. Toner himself states in this guest post:
all I knew when I began working on my first novel, The Promise of the Child, was how the book should feel: a similar amalgam of sensation—unnerving and ghostly, rich in tone and colour and sultry with ambience, dangerous but also somehow cosy, and above all deeply, deeply strange.
For me, Toner succeeds consistently in the challenging task he has set himself. I could almost have chosen at random and presented what would seem to be a remarkably exemplary passage, but this one seems to me among Toner’s most successful. Its protagonist is Corphuso, who, as a result of inventing a terrible machine, is being dragged across the universe along with his device. He considers the forest in which he finds himself:
Corphuso thought he could see a star. The tiny point of light was almost too faint to notice, wavering as if glimpsed through a column of rising heat. It was the only source of light he could make out, enough to know that the trees didn’t entirely obscure the deep valley where they had made their camp … there was no difference between day and night here in the foothills of the Hiobs, and all was silent but for the pattering of a gentle rain from the leaves. Long ago on the Old World, the ancestors of all the imported species here would have screeched and howled into the darkness; now they kept still—life in the black rainforest made its way in creeping, careful silence, or burrowed and hidden. (p. 53)
Words and phrases like "black rainforest" and "no difference between day and night" provide Toner's desired sense of danger. Conceptually, I found the idea of a forest filled with creatures that once screeched but have either learned to be silent in order to survive or have actually evolved into that state deeply strange and spine chilling. On the other hand, "burrowed and hidden," "gentle," and even "careful silence" give him his coziness. Coziness is about contrast (i.e., “the weather outside is frightful, but inside …”), and Toner deftly creates a sense of tenuously preserved snugness and safety in the face of a vast, black, threatening ecosystem. The book follows a range of characters across a range of landscapes, yet, despite this breadth of sights and sounds and textures and colors, Toner maintains the heady blend of feelings he was apparently striving to create.
Yet this scene in which Toner achieves such obvious success in rendering these feelings, this "amalgam of sensation," as he calls it, was one of the worst for sustaining my interest. I can only conclude that my interest wasn’t flagging due to a lack of feeling, but rather due to a lack of passion. Corphuso’s toils through the darkness seem not just sightless, but aimless. Corphuso tells us at length about the route he will be taking and provides the reader with a great deal of information about the current state of political alliances; but he has no real stake in these plans or these conflicts. Corphuso regrets his invention but has no plans to act based on this regret. He hopes to become immortal but does nothing towards this aim. He just travels with people and observes. I don’t feel the point of it all through him. His thoughts lead into exposition about the politics among the races without the reader sensing their stakes. I don’t think that the consistency with which Toner maintains the book’s tonal effects is the problem, although I considered the possibility. It is rather the fact that I don’t grieve, celebrate, hope, fear, and most importantly I do not often desire with the characters. Their emotions don’t touch nerves.
In general, the novel's focal characters rarely have full knowledge of what they are doing and why. In part, perhaps, the problem lies with the characters on whom Toner chooses to focus. The immortal characters, for example, have been dulled and blunted by long life. They often drift in aimless reverie. Toner gets some entertainment out of how annoying it is to talk to one. But even when the characters are mortal, the pattern of their emotions doesn’t always build towards something powerful. Part of the problem is that Toner places all of his main characters in situations they can’t fully grasp. Sotiris, our Amaranthine protagonist, is caught up in machinations beyond him, interacting with an evil power he can’t fathom. Lycaste, our third protagonist after Corphuso, is likewise deeply ignorant of his own world.
That said, the book does not feel coy, smug, or teasing. The fact that my understanding of the stakes unfolds slowly leaves me with no sense that Toner is enjoying keeping the reader at a disadvantage. The prose is far from grey and invisible, but Toner does not make himself powerfully felt as a narrator. The purpose of Toner’s language seems to be to serve the story, rather than to show off his cleverness (which speaks for itself). Instead, the slow reveal seems more in the service of giving us time to look at Toner’s world from different angles (his choice of the word “Prism” for the human-based races seems relevant here). Perhaps Toner wants us to look at his world before we judge it, to feel it as too large to be grasped at a glance. The novel is liberally dotted with the verbal equivalent of establishing shots: the type of camera work that often doesn’t propel the narrative forward, but isn’t quite a tease. Toner brings us in close to an image, then pulls out, but in that contraction and dilation we lose a sense of immediacy. The problem is that when we don’t know what people want, what they’re striving for, it’s hard to feel propelled by the narrative.
It’s not that Toner needs to spend more time thinking about what motivates people, how they work, how they think. All of the characters make sense to me, and are vivid, and even memorable; but I would be more engaged and interested in them if Toner established in each scene not only who they were, but what was driving them, what desires and fears prick them forward and push them back. These don’t have to be broad, overarching plans—they can still be confused, but they need to be motivated more often on a smaller scale.
There are only occasional moments in which a character feels strongly compelled to act, and where they occur I see what I have been missing elsewhere in the story: a minor character vows to have the rings off another creature’s fingers, and Toner informs us that this man has taken compulsive pleasure in stealing for stealing’s sake, right down to the pettiest theft, for twelve thousand years. This idea is just one example of Toner’s elegant conceptual thinking about what it’s like to live in his worlds (i.e., pathologies might persist beyond most of the other passions); but it is one of the few instances where that conceptual thinking sharply pricks my interest in a character. Even here, however, we're presented not with a sustained, driving emotion so much as an urge. I’d like to see Toner do more work to render those aspects of interior mental life that fall between hindbrain urges and intellectual plans.
Compounding this problem is the fact the emotional moments that the novel does offer often haven’t been sharpened quite to the finest point possible. When Sotiris grieves for his sister, it looks very plausibly like grief to me—I would not even say that it seems perfunctory, stilted, or told, rather than shown—but Toner does not provide me with the telling memories or gestures or experiences that would make that grief really strike me. When Lycaste’s dollhouse, his most prized possession, burns, I similarly felt very little. Lycaste’s fear and love make sense to me, but I don’t feel those emotions driving his actions.
I feel ungracious in saying that further books in this series should take on more challenges with regard to its viewpoint characters, given that Toner has already given himself the challenge of writing persuasively from the point of view of a 12,000-year-old immortal (and met that challenge admirably and cleverly); but in some ways I do think he could be more ambitious. There is only one brief scene from the point of view of a female character. None of the focal human characters, as far as I could tell, were non-white. I find this a striking omission in such a multi-textured world, with so much physical diversity among its characters. I wonder if pushing himself to inhabit people who our current culture views as "other" to him might break Toner out of some of his narrative routines and sharpen his writing of passions and drives a little.
I will say that the plot comes together excellently. More time with the characters endears me to them, rather than making me tired of their company. I want to see how the people I have begun to get to know will develop. Toner has written a lush world that is burning, ending, dying. I may have felt nothing when Lycaste’s beloved dollhouse burned, but Toner’s world is a far greater creation—and I have not given up on feeling pleasure or pain as it collapses.