2023’s The Archive Undying is the first volume in Emma Mieko Candon’s Downworld Sequence.
Sunai spends his life working hard, pursuing ill-conceived romantic entanglements, and concealing his secret: however hurt, he will heal. Sunai cannot be killed. This marks Sunai as someone valuable, someone worth enslaving.
But first: a word about dead gods.
The world used to be the domain of powerful artificial intelligences, technological gods. Humans existed at the gods’ pleasure, fulfilling useful roles or disposed of as surplus to needs. Then the gods began to die, victims of a contagious madness. The result was death and destruction on a massive scale. The gods were reduced to fragments. Useful fragments.
The Harbor rose in this power vacuum, a human-run government commanding a respectable empire. Success and expansion are dependent on their skill at repurposing the remains of the corrupted AIs. The result — ENGINES — are dangerous but controllable, powerful weapons for an expanding empire.
When the city-state Khuon Mo’s AI, Iterate Fractal, was corrupted decades before, Sunai was transformed from human archivist into a relic. Relics are useful, a key part of creating ENGINES. Preferring not to be wired into the repurposed body of a dead god, Sunai keeps his nature to himself.
Now Harbor has a new ENGINE, one seemingly created from the ruins of Iterate Fractal. Harbor has occupied the ruins of Khuon Mo for decades without forging a new ENGINE. Clearly, Harbor has access to some new resource.
The prudent course of action for a relic would be to put as much distance between it and its dead god as possible. Sunai has not got where he is by making sensible decisions. He is recruited into a covert effort to spike the new ENGINE. It’s a bold gambit to contain Harbor’s ambitions … one that will go very seriously off-mission.
Candon has the same writing philosophy as John M. Ford and Gene Wolfe, which is to say just because the author knows what’s going on does not mean they will feel compelled to provide readers with a Poul-Anderson-esque infodump outlining their world. Sure, if there’s a reason for the characters to consider something in the setting, they will mention it. But if it’s a background element of which everyone (except the reader) is aware, they might not.
AIs in general and Iterate Fractal did not respect boundaries. Minds are mutable phenomena thanks to the gods. Where one ends and another begins is probably a question not worth asking. Irreversible transformation is a significant risk for those dabbling in dead gods. There are novels in which characters experience absolutely no change over the course of the story. This is very much not one of those novels.
The result: it’s not always clear what’s going on, why it is happening, or to whom it is happening. This isn’t a story interested in holding the reader’s hand. Expect to work while reading this novel.
The experience isn’t all methodical unravelling of an opaque plot. Cadon’s prose is lovingly constructed. The sentences are beautiful, even if it’s not always clear what plot they delineate. The overall effect is oddly reminiscent of the New Wave: style wins over clarity.
This may be the kind of thing you like, or it may not be. Caution advised.