He may be heir to the wealthy Alexandros Estates, one of Lagrima's pre-eminent trading Families, but young Cale Alexandro's formative years are nonetheless surprisingly turbulent. His difficulties begin when his father's spaceship is attacked by pirates, forcing him and his nursemaid into a chaotic crash-landing on the nearest planet, and they never really stop.
Despite bearing the somewhat uninspiring moniker "Conrad's World," Cale's new home does boast a geopolitical set-up rich with dramatic potential. Most of it is a penal colony, an unforgiving wilderness inhabited by exiles from the planet's only city, Morningstar, which may or may not rest on the remains of an extinct alien civilization. These exiles, among whom Cale finds shelter of a cruel sort, eke out their existences in bronze-age villages and collectives, separated from Morningstar by the Great Divide—a giant ravine surrounding the city. Cale works his way from slave to servant to adventurer, but does he have a higher purpose? All, or at least most, is revealed in a functional rather than electrifying novel which sometimes catches the imagination but falls short of its epic aspirations.
First things first: The Rosetta Codex is nine parts fantasy to one part science fiction. As a space opera with a distinctly old fashioned flavour, familiar fantasy motifs crowd its pages; prophesies, visions, intimations of destiny, they're all here. Unfortunately, in the absence of much reinvention on Russo's part, they often look a little shop-worn. At one point Cale finds a mysterious book under the altar of an abandoned chapel; I'm sorry to report it gives off a "gleaming blue radiance" (p.71).
A more serious shortcoming is the nebulous nature of the characters' motives, something that prevented me ever fully connecting with them. As a marooned child struggling for survival, Cale the younger can't really fail to be a sympathetic character, but in an unfortunate reversal of the way these things ought to go, I felt my reader/character relationship with him grow cool as the narrative progressed. I nodded with satisfaction when he escaped the slavers, but as he matured and the reasons for his actions became more vague, I more often found myself frowning in confusion.
Cale himself seems to be as much in the dark. Why, he is asked at one point, does he decide to head for the most dangerous part of the wilderness? "It feels important, somehow," is the less than satisfying reply. Why, once in Morningstar, does he join renegade archaeologists the Ressurectionists (an outlaw clique secretly trying to excavate the above-mentioned alien civilization)? "I don't have anything else," is the annoyingly vague answer. I suppose Russo wanted me to work out Cale's motives for myself, something I would have been happy to do if I'd had a little more to go on.
A similar vagueness casts its unwelcome shadow elsewhere. It's not giving away too much to say that events eventually progress beyond the wilderness, but the nature and structure of Russo's future society is never made clear; as with Cale himself, we never get under its skin. True, we get a (very small) potted history early on, by dint of a rather fortuitous encounter Cale has in the wilderness with a collector of old books, but this does little more than confirm that the story is indeed set in our future, rather than in a Galaxy Far, Far Away. The social principles this future society is based on appear to be trade and hierarchy, and the society seems to be somewhat corrupt. Again, not much to go on.
Structurally, the novel is a strangely linear ride, eschewing the sort of narrative variations which might have lent the story some spice; events are reported sequentially, and invariably from Cale's perspective. This gets tiring; it would have been nice to be let out of Cale's head every few chapters, especially since the supporting cast, frankly, includes more interesting characters than him. (I wanted more on the Sarakheen, an intriguingly unpleasant cult of techno-fetishists whose cyborg adherents regard themselves as the next rung on mankind's evolutionary ladder.) To his credit, Russo's not afraid to hit the fast-forward button where necessary, with Cale's less eventful years unceremoniously ejected from the plot.
There is good stuff here. If Russo paints the backdrop to his novel with too thick a brush, he renders individual scenes in pleasingly vivid detail:
"The passenger ring continued its drop down the outer rim of the space elevator's cargo shaft, rotating slowly, while the sun appeared to be setting in fast-motion, the sky's colours transitioning from lighter hues to darker, from the palest turquoise blue to wide swaths of deep yellow and fiery orange." (pp 225-6)
He's also capable of using understatement to good effect; emotions are conveyed with a nod, or a single sentence. No one could accuse Russo of verbosity.
With stronger characters more coherently motivated, and maybe a touch of humour here and there to relieve the pervading dourness, this novel might have come closer to evoking the awe it's clearly trying to inspire. As it was, I was left feeling I'd walked a too-well-trodden road, with characters I wasn't given enough reason to care about.
Finn Dempster lives in Bristol, England, and can usually be found in his local library, pub, or bookshop. He holds an English degree, and is dithering over the notion of doing a Ph.D. He reviews books and film for ezines and his local press.
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