Short and sweet: This novel appears on John C. Wright’s list of essential SF&F reading (I’m working my way through the list here), for good reason. Cool story, presenting in 1920 images and concepts that reappear in such things the Machine City in the Matrix and the Borg. Well worth the read, and available free through Project Gutenberg.
The over-the-top yet fun prologue I affectionately mocked here. A Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, fresh off a trip to the Himalayas, charges the author with recording and spreading the unbelievable tale he is about to tell him.
Part of the charm of this book is the lovely, over the top (by degenerate modern standards) language. It’s a bit of a vocabulary quiz, at least for me, full of delightful, colorful words I did not know, but do now. And Merritt layers on the history and science, circa 1920, to give the story versimilitude. Here’s a taste:
For almost three months we had journeyed; Chiu-Ming and I and the two ponies that carried my impedimenta.
We had traversed mountain roads which had echoed to the marching feet of the hosts of Darius, to the hordes of the Satraps. The highways of the Achaemenids—yes, and which before them had trembled to the tramplings of the myriads of the godlike Dravidian conquerors.
We had slipped over ancient Iranian trails; over paths which the warriors of conquering Alexander had traversed; dust of bones of Macedons, of Greeks, of Romans, beat about us; ashes of the flaming ambitions of the Sassanidae whimpered beneath our feet—the feet of an American botanist, a Chinaman, two Tibetan ponies. We had crept through clefts whose walls had sent back the howlings of the Ephthalites, the White Huns who had sapped the strength of these same proud Sassanids until at last both fell before the Turks.
Over the highways and byways of Persia’s glory, Persia’s shame and Persia’s death we four—two men, two beasts—had passed. For a fortnight we had met no human soul, seen no sign of human habitation.
(“Impedimenta” is definitely going into the quiver.)
Goodwin has gone to do some botanical research in the remote mountain valleys of the Himalayas. The hills are alive – with Americans. Can’t hardly turn around without meeting some. Goodwin and his cook/guide run into Dick Drake, son of an old science buddy. They decide to travel together.
Things get weird. Or weirder. First off are bizzare atmospheric phenomena that defy description and any sort of natural explanation. Goodwin tries a little early 20th century handwavium on them, something about high mountains and inversion layers, but Drake isn’t buying it. Then they come across what appears to be a gigantic footprint, perfectly geometrical, that has crushed the stone beneath it into what appears to be a surface machined flat. Finally, the two explorers and their guides follow an ever-narrowing mountain crevasse into a huge green bowl shaped valley, stumble upon some ruins.
A mysterious despair grips them, a tangible effect of the place. As they struggle their way out of the valley and the emotional pall, they run into more of Goodwin’s old friends, Martin and Ruth Ventnor, brother and sister scientists. Ruth is of course lovely, and she and Drake promptly fall in love.
Ruth and Martin are fleeing some Persians, like from 24 centuries ago, an ancient civilization still alive in this secret, remote place. But that’s not all that worries them. In the ruins, Ruth shows Goodwin some small metallic cubes, spheres and other geometric forms. Goodwin picks one up to examine it, and is quickly confronted by many others, who stack and form themselves into a little vaguely animalish shape and threaten Goodwin until he drops the one he’s holding. The little shapes disappear into a crevasse in the floor of the ruin. They are living metal creatures of some sort, who coordinate their actions in a sophisticated ways, forming and reforming shapes as desired.
The Persians attack! An army more than a thousand strong descends upon our heroes, trapped in the mountain valley. Our team, with guns, is doing serious damage, but cannot defeat so vast an enemy. Up from the crevasse arises a goddess, tall, stately, glowing. At her gesture, the humans gather round her, and the crevasse vomits forth vast numbers of the metal creatures, who form themselves into a killing machine, and exterminate the Persian force….
And it builds from there. If you like fantastic action, detailed word-painting in the 19th century tradition, and surprise endings, this is a book for you. Fun stuff. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out.