Monday, 28 January 2013

A Red Sun Also Rises, by Mark Hodder – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

A Red Sun Also Rises, by Mark Hodder (Del Rey, hb, 274pp). Vicar Aiden Fleischer adopts an initially unkempt young woman, Clarissa Stark, as his curate. The favourite of an English Lord whose dissolute son ran her over, breaking her back and legs and killing her father, she was thrown out when the father died and the son inherited. A warm friendship grows between the two, a shared love of reading and science its crucible. When the vicar’s almost innocent infatuation with a local rufty-tufty girl goes horribly wrong, Clarissa accompanies him on a Christian mission to Papua New Guinea.

On the cannibal island of Koluwai disappearances are frequent, and on one lightning-torn night it is the missionaries’ turn to disappear. They wake, to their surprise, on another world, where two suns shine and abducted Koluwaiians serve terribly polite alien masters, the Yatsills. Clarissa and Aiden’s arrival is a dissonance, whose ripples wash over this society and leave oddly familiar shapes behind. Taken to the city of New Yatsillat, they see it being rebuilt to resemble London, and it resounds with jolly good shows, not bloody sures and splendid ideas.

But old problems and dangers remain, and the echoes of industrialisation cause as many problems as they solve. Clarissa and Aiden try to solve the mysteries of this world, she with her cleverness and technical know-how, and he with a sword after being assigned to and trained in the city guard, but half-way through the novel comes a great change, one that would be a great spoiler were it not in the title: the two suns set, and a red sun rises. Under its light we meet the Blood Gods, terrible and hungry.

Though this is an enjoyable novel, with well-drawn action and several interesting mysteries for its heroes to investigate, it will be defined for some readers by having a bad case of the Hermiones, in that Aiden Fleischer does not seem to be the natural protagonist of its story. On the whole, despite his doubts, he’s likeable and decent (even if readers may not be impressed by his “Why Miss Jones, you’re beautiful!” response to his companion following the “correction” of her disabilities), but there’s not a moment of the book when one wouldn’t rather be with Clarissa.

She’s the one experiencing an altered consciousness through her connection to the telepathic field that binds the Yatsill, who is working with their scientists to find a cure, whose childhood designs of battle machines seem to be important. She advances the story, he reacts to it. Perhaps it’s unfair to fault the book for creating a supporting character who is too appealing, and the narrative is of course in theory the memoir of Aiden (found, per tradition, following a second disappearance), but one does wish the focus was on her more often.

While this has the feel of H.G. Wells, were he writing today it’s unlikely he would produce such comfortable reading. The worries of an English vicar about his lack of faith don’t make for gripping drama in the twenty-first century. It’s undeniably fun to see aliens talking like Bertie Wooster, but it was fun too in Moorcock’s The Coming of the Terraphiles, and in the radio programme Paradise Lost in Space. In Dancers at the End of Time Moorcock explored how disconcerting and disturbing such imitation could be, but here it’s simply puzzling.

Authors and fans often think to discern a hint of envy in a reviewer’s negative comments, and, indeed, my ambition would be utterly satisfied by writing a book as readable and exciting as this one! But still it could be faulted for not striking further into uncharted territory. Contrast it with Nathan Long's Jane Carver of Waar, in some ways an American parallel of this book, echoing fondly the Martian tales of Burroughs, but with a modern female protagonist utterly unlike those we’re used to seeing in such books. A Red Sun Also Rises is good entertainment, but old-fashioned science fiction.

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