Brain Niemeier’s short 135 page novel the Hymn of the Pearl is enjoyable, full of action and curious. As a story, it definitively keeps you turning the the pages. The key characters are compelling and well fleshed out for as short a book as this. It leaves you thinking. What are you waiting for? Click the link and buy it.
As in all the Niemeier stories and books I’ve read, Hymn is set in a fully realized, highly detailed world. The Hymn of the Pearl is the story of Soter, the last Advocate in an ancient land that recalls the Middle East. Rough overview: Advocates were priests who could control fate to some extent, but were very cautious about it because messing with fates is messing with gods. Much of the work of the Advocates consisted of managing human fate to avoid large disasters and assigning human misfortunes to Gheanon, the primordial god of chaos, by means of which they had bound him, more or less. This god is satanic.
Soter had just finished his apprenticeship and was about to marry and embark on a very respectable career when the order of Arbiters arose. These new, scientific fate-controllers destroyed the Advocates by assigning to them all the misfortune they had assigned to Gheanon. All died, except Soter, the newest Advocate – who was cursed with all the evil laid on Gheanon and whose great misfortune is to live. Death would be too easy a way out. All who get involved in his life are infected, as it were, with his fate.
Once he realized what had happened, Soter desperately sought the aid of the Arbiter Manthus to rejigger the fate of his bride to be, who was set on marrying Soter regardless of the curse he was under. Soter knew marriage to him was a horrible fate. It works, to the extent that she marries another. But not quite, as she soon after dies in childbirth. Soter thereafter avoids human entanglements as much as possible.
There is a law of conservation of fate: you can’t create it or destroy it, just move it around, and a price to be paid by those who move it. The trick is to find an appropriate scapegoat, an animal who is made to absorb the bad juju that comes from humans manipulating fate. Arbiters are always looking for such a victim, as if they don’t promptly reassign the price, they themselves will have to pay it in some misfortune or other.
The Arbiters are officially neutral in all political matters. Nonetheless, they find themselves beseeched to mitigate, somehow, the coming disaster of war, which resulted from political intrigue and hubris. There aren’t enough scapegoats in the world to absorb all the bad juju fixing a war would bring, so they get the bright idea: why don’t we get Soter to become an ally with the side we want to lose? We’ll get a couple expert Arbiters, Manthus, since he knows Soter already, and Kore, a women whose expertise is exceeded only by her unscrupulousness, to manage the details around the edges.
Soter is of course appalled, but eventually gets sucked in. Adventures ensue.
The story gets kicked up to another level exactly half way through, when Grapt, one of two characters introduced in the prologue, come on scene in a vision of sorts to Soter and warns him he is messing with forces way bigger than he understands, and that great misfortune disaster will accompany him if he continues. Earlier, Cteria had appeared to Soter to advise and aid him, and Soter was taking her advise. About that prologue: it is the story of the horrible revenge Grapt, a great Advocate, takes on Cteira his wife, another great Advocate, in response to her infidelity – they are bound together and deathless, so that he may inflict torture on her for all eternity. She is aiding Soter, but to the end of breaking her curse. But there is an even greater quest involved.
The curious part is the occasional intrusion – not too distracting, but present – of the feeling you’re reading an allegory of some sort, but can’t quite figure it out. Partly, it’s the names: the protagonist Soter calls to mind soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, with the root soter meaning savior in Greek. Kore, a major side character, might refer to Cor, or heart, in several languages. Manthus might be simply Everyman. But then again, maybe not.
Only after I had read it through once did I look up the title, and discover that it evidently refers to the ancient Hymn of the Pearl, a story from the Gospel of Thomas much beloved by Gnostics and Mormons. Hmmm. In the ancient text, a second royal son is sent to far away Egypt on a mission to retrieve a pearl guarded by a giant serpent. When he arrives, he forgets his mission and who he is, and lives like an Egyptian. Finally, his royal parents send him a reminder letter, he remembers who he is, lulls the snake and retrieves the pearl. He throws off the Egyptian clothes he is wearing, but is greeted on his return trip by servants of his parents who give him glorious new clothes to wear.
I don’t know how much knowing that helped me appreciate the story. Thinking of Soter as a savior of some kind works.
This is maybe the fourth or fifth of Niemeier’s works I’ve read, and it is in many ways the clearest. I admit I get lost in his longer novels – you must read them wide awake, not as bedtime half asleep reading, or they will make no sense. I ended up enjoying them all, even though it was a bit more work to do so than I originally intended. Hymn of the Pearl is less demanding in that sense (or I’m just getting better at it!) but still a rewarding read. I’m still thinking about it, and am 75% of the way through rereading it.
Conclusion: very much recommend. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out.