Continuing to catch up with reviews, this is a review of In the Lion’s Mouth by Michael Flynn that first appeared in Interzone 238, January-February 2012.
It seems that the further into the future we set our stories, the further into the past we turn for our models. Michael Flynn explicitly turns to the high middle ages as the model for this novel, though there are times when it recalls something even older, the mead halls and bards of a dark age society.
Though the latest volume in Flynn’s ongoing space opera is ostensibly set so far in the future that mankind has spread across the galaxy, he kits his latter day knights out with coats of arms, courtly rules of combat, extravagant oaths, and all the other paraphernalia of someone fresh out of the fifteenth century. He even tells the story as a cross between an ancient epic and a medieval troubadour ballad, each narrative chapter beginning with a section in (pretty execrable) verse. Even when he switches to a more conventional prose, he employs the sort of grandiose language that has become associated with modern recreations of the middle ages. However, in the very first sentence of the novel, Flynn seems not to notice that nightfall and gloaming are describing the same thing, one of many instances throughout the book where it is clear that he is going by the sound of the word rather than its sense.
Whether this means that we have a faux medieval fantasy disguised as epic space opera, or epic space opera disguised as faux medieval fantasy is beside the point: the two have become identical. The only difference between this and an archetypal Arthurian quest story is that knights ride to distant planets in spaceships rather than into darkling woods upon horseback; oh, and women play a much bigger and more active part. There are, however, still citadels, harpists, magical cloaks, tournaments and knights errant. For all I know, there are probably still poor downtrodden peasants labouring in the fields, but we don’t see much of them; this is exclusively a story of the aristocracy.
Donovan burgh, who contains multiple personalities as a consequence of torture by the Confederacy, has been kidnapped by Ravn Olafsdottr, a Shadow of the Confederacy. There’s a civil war brewing among the Shadows of the Confederacy, and Donovan is wanted as a figurehead by the rebels because, unbeknown to him, he was once the leader of an earlier and unsuccessful rebellion. All of this is recounted after the event by Ravn, who has brought the news to the citadel of Bridget ban, a Hound of the Ardry (the Ardry are the longtime enemies of the Confederacy), who was Donovan’s lover, and to the harper, Mearana, who is Donovan’s daughter. Shadows and Hounds are two names for the same thing, the military elite; the novel is crammed with terms like that (the nameless hoi polloi who flit around the edges of the action and provide the body count whenever there is action are called things like ‘boots’, ‘sheep’ and ‘magpies’), but you get used to them readily enough. And then there are ‘Those of Name’, the ruling elite of the Confederacy who live in secluded luxury and have access to advanced science that is, as Arthur C. Clarke might have said, indistinguishable from magic: they play a Merlin-type role in the story.
The action proceeds by fight after fight, each more elaborate and more gory than the one before, though to be honest the rebellion seems so cack-handed from the start that it’s a wonder it ever gets as far as it does. The whole novel, however, is clearly no more than a set-up for subsequent volumes, scattering a few clues and loose ends and putting the key players in place. It is action-packed, dramatic, full of incident and readable, but in the end you feel the whole thing is rather meaningless. The whole multi-volume sweep might, when finished, work thrillingly enough, but I suspect that way stations such as this volume might count as longeurs within the great frame.