Maskelle was once of figure of some significance in her native Celestial Empire – the human Voice of the Adversary, the great being charged with fighting evil - but having blotted her copybook with a bit of business involving a false prophecy and a trail of dead bodies she was consigned to exile in the provinces, far from the center of power. Now, after years of exile, she is returning home to Duvalpore, summoned by the Celestial One.
Many great empires style themselves the center of creation. The Celestial Empire is unusual in that this is true, the world is centered on the sacred mountain in the Empire. For the priestly functionaries of the Empire, a map in the sacred mountain can literally be the territory. For the most part the Empire has used this power to carry out rituals necessary for the functioning of the universe.
Maskelle was summoned home because something is going horribly wrong with the Hundred Year Rite in which through a map – the Wheel of the Infinite - the world is redrawn and recreated; in this way harmony is renewed. Details on the map are replicated in the world and as the Celestial One reveals to Maskelle, the map has been besmirched. Worse, the flaw redraws itself when erased. It falls to Maskelle as the Voice of a being who has fallen silent in recent years to find the malefactors responsible for the desecration and punish them before they can ruin Maskelle’s world.
Pretty much the first question I had when the nature of the Wheel was explained was “what happens if a priest sneezes while drawing the Wheel?1” That does not happen but based on what does happen I am pretty sure the results would be very bad. From this we can deduce priests with allergies don’t get picked to help with the Wheel of the Infinite. This seems like the sort of universe where even without malice it would possible (inevitable, really, given time) for things to go horribly pear-shape because this universe requires active maintenance. It’s the fantasy equivalent of the ringworld.
Maskelle is unusual for a fantasy protagonist in that she’s a middle-aged woman (and one whose power does not derive from lineage or marriage – in general her marriages have not been entirely successful). She’s also unusual in that she and her people are dark-skinned, not that you’d know it from past covers:
This cover dodges the issue by leaving the protagonist off the cover entirely in favor of a supporting character named Rian (who has his own troubled history involving an odd reluctance to being buried alive). Rian’s an important character but he’s not the lead.
Interesting tidbit: authors who have featured dark-skinned protagonists in their speculative fiction have been known to get hate-mail for it. Although the text is pretty clear that
The Kushorit, the main stock of the Celestial Empire, also tended to be small, dark-skinned and compactly built
maybe the publishers were just trying to defer the inevitable flood of angry letters from readers who like their protagonists like they do their bread: white, over-processed and flavourless. Such readers might be advised to avoid this particular work.
I am a huge fan of brevity in fiction but I will admit that it can work against authors in works that are essentially mysteries, as this book is. There is a detail mentioned early on that I looked at and thought “That there is a significant plot point being run past the reader at high speed, one whose consequences we will be seeing later on and I know this because it would not have been fit in if it didn’t matter.”
It’s a genuine relief to see a competent, sympathetic character whose monumental screw-ups are not later vindicated through authorial fiat. Maskelle is given the freedom to get some things irreparably wrong. It’s not all her fault but she does make some very impressive mistakes.
I’ve read fewer of Wells’ books than I should have but in my defense her career began only a couple of years before I started letting other people pick my reading material for me. I assume either I was seen as a poor fit for her books – WRONG – or more likely, her books were snapped up by people higher up the food chain than I am. I’ve always been pleased by the works of hers that I have read and this is no exception, a delightful little puzzle/world-saving adventure that is just about as long as it needs to be.
- It may be this is affected by the fact each day I decide if it is an anti-inflammatory day or an antihistamine day.