The next-to-last book in Brian Niemeier’s Soul Cycle, the Secret Kings is, essentially, the continued adventures of Teg, Navkin, Elena and Astlin – and a whole bunch of other characters – as they face off with and kill, are killed and/or resurrected by an array of evil maniacs. All the Way Cool Powers ™ that the players have been picking up throughout the adventures over thee books now, the connections both mundane and eldritch, and who needs to save or revenge whom from what, are put in play.
A fun read. Check it out.
The climactic scenes are drawn in a way that defies mere cinematic imagination – and that’s a compliment, after having read stories over the years that read more like outlines for movies that actual novels. Here, Niemeier uses a device favored by Dante: paint the picture in broad strokes while having the viewpoint character recognize that what he sees is fundamental incomprehensibility. You are imagining the unimaginable. It works – the reader sees something partial, but gets the full emotional import.
For the first time in the series, I found myself caring about the characters. While normally this would sound like a fatal criticism of the earlier books, it’s weirdly not – at least in my case. Two reasons: the action and universe-building is good enough to keep my interest, and I learned the hard way (read the first book 3+ times) that I needed to approach these books as if they are works from an unfamiliar culture.
Because they are. That culture unknown to me includes role-playing games, comic books and anime. And Dune, which I could never get more than 100 pages into. John C. Wright’s books have much of the same issues for me, and he’s a great writer, so it’s not a reflection of writer’s skill by any means.
Here’s an example: role-playing games, based on what I’ve picked up from my sons, who are very much into them, have this idea of assigning roles and powers to characters that come into play and are added to over the course of adventures and quests, and that ultimately only fully reveal themselves in climactic battles. It’s the difference between Raymond Chandler’s description of Philip Marlowe:
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.
…and a D&D character sheet.
Now, a writer certainly can build a compelling character from a Bard with +15 Charisma – whatever the hell that means – but it seems to me that in this series the *character* character, such as understood by Chandler, is build ON the D&D-style definitions rather than the other way around. Marlowe packs a .38, and all you’ll ever find out about it is that it’s a .38. (1) Teg packs, among many other things, a Worked Rodcaster, which is lovingly described in some detail, critical to several plot points and battles, and requires the reader to keep in mind an entire system (or 2. Or 3.) of magic/science to understand. He’ll pull it out in certain exact situations where it, among all the weapons in his kit, is the one and only thing to address the exact challenge he’s facing. Which seems random UNLESS you remember all that other stuff.
Marlowe uses his .38 to put holes in people once in a while. Now the demands and expectations of Science Fantasy are way, way different than Detective Noir, but even: the reader, I think, is expected to share the author’s delight in the level of detail needed for the Rodcaster to work in the story. I am not of that culture, and so it was work.
This all no doubt seems completely normal to role playing gamers, who spend hours going over who has what powers and characteristics and what the rules of the magic system are before they ever start playing. Reading the Soul Cycle, such a one is probably making exactly the sort of mental notes the gamers are habitually taking, about who can do what and how a Nexist differs from a Factor and so on.
Me? All this stuff, with which the Soul Cycle is packed, seems like weird trivia. So I must read these tales like I’m reading Gilgamesh or something, recognizing that there are cultural considerations to be made for it to be enjoyable or even just understood.
Wow, that was waaaay heavier than I intended! Gilgamesh and Dante in a SFF novel review. Need more coffee.
By book 3, however, while I still can’t quite keep all the rules and powers straight, nor remember the exact relationships between the various factions and planets, nor even keep all the myriad players and who is betraying whom straight without considerable effort, at least by now I know and care about a few core characters, and so can sympathize when Astlin is threatened, for example, even if I’m unsure what exact power she now has to address it.
If your standard for complicated storytelling is, say, Vance, this is going to be a challenging read. If Tolstoy, OK, that’s better, at least for keeping vast numbers of characters straight. But ideally, you’re a reader who has played role playing games all your life, and so will take active delight in Neimeier’s lovingly and well-thought-out details and be undaunted by how many there are.
That reader is not me – and I still enjoyed the book, and plan to start The Ophian Rising soon. So check the Soul Cycle out!
- In one Chandler story, a hit man’s gun is described in some detail – a .22 target pistol with the sight filed off – in order to show what a cocky SOB the dude is. But that’s it, as far as I can remember.