I used to have two rules: always read books by people named Sean and always try books by Australians US publishers went to the trouble of acquiring the rights. Like a lot of arbitrary filters, those worked until they failed catastrophically1 but I was well pleased with discovering Australian author Sean McMullen.
Lights up on a world much like Earth but with crucial differences and the siege of the city of Larmentel by the glorious imperial might of the armies of Emperor Warsovran. Unfortunately for Warsovran’s soldiers, their grand skills at siege-craft were learned from the scholars of Larmentel and the scholars kept their best tricks for themselves. Things are not going well but they are about to become much worse.
Through much effort and the cost of many lives, the ambitious Warsovran managed to recover an ancient weapon of stupendous potential called Silverdeath. Silverdeath does not come with an externally accessible instruction manual so Warsovran made the error of putting it on himself; rather than becoming Silverdeath’s master, he became its host. The man who became the suit’s master was the one who handed it to the emperor, the loyal but not over-bright Ralzak.
Not having Warsovran’s genius, Ralzak resorts to ordering Silverdeath to destroy the city’s core; after an insufficiently clear warning, the auton detaches from its host and flies off to annihilate the target with a sea of magical fire. Warsovran, restored to youth and health by Silverdeath, is freed as soon the construct leaves on its mission of death. Aware of certain interesting details of Silverdeath’s operation thanks to his months as its host, Warsovran thanks his officer, leaves him to carry out what Warsovran assures him is a series of tests, then leaves for his capital. Poor Ralzak is probably better off not knowing that as soon as he gets home, Warsovran orchestrates an exodus from the continent of Torea of his fleet and everyone Warsovran holds dear.
Some time later, Velander, a bright but sadly immature sister of the Metrologan Order, realizes the significance of the facts that each “test” of Silverdeath has covered twice the area of the previous “test” while the intervals between tests have halved each time. Once activated, Silverdeath cannot be shut down and the final escalating flickers of the nuclear option will sweep all life from Torea, and possibly the entire world. Velander realizes this just in time to save herself and a handful of intelligence operatives from the Special Warriors Service on a submersible boat called the Shadowmoon.
As it happens, oceans shut down the sequence so the world is spared but Torea is turned to a land of glass and ashes.
What follows is the long and surprisingly complicated (for a 496p book) struggle between Warsovran to carve out a new empire in an untouched continent, beginning with the kingdom of Diomeda, while the surviving members of the Metrologans, the Secret Warrior Service and others do their best to ensure Silverdeath is never used again.
Complicating matters is the fact that the two sides are themselves divided into many factions working at cross-purposes. The anti-Worsovran side is particularly rich in gifted eccentrics, from the French vampire Laron whose “chivalry” consists mainly of coming up with creative excuses to eat people to the brilliant but judgmental Velander, whose dedication to regulations is toxic. Warsovran for his part is merely a megalomaniac with a talent for war and little else, just the sort of tedious dinner companion Laron would consume; it certainly does not seem to occur to him his subordinates would mind that the emperor left their families to be burned alive in Torea.
The running theme is in this book is that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy, seemingly uninvolved third parties and sometimes even the plan’s own architect. For example, the Princess Senterri, living incognito in Diomeda, entertains herself and (she hopes) her family with a series of letters about her thrilling and obviously fictional adventures in Occupied Diomeda. The letters are taken at face value by her humourless family, which results in a baffled Warsovran being presented with a strongly worded ultimatum from a heavily armed alliance demanding he surrender a “Princess Senterri” whose existence he only learns of from the ultimatum itself.
When not being sabotaged by events outside their control, some characters manage to sabotage themselves in ways peculiar to hopeless romantics and the very bright. Velander, being both, is very good at getting in her own way. Others, cautious Einsel in particular, demonstrate an unexpected capacity for heroism.
I notice that in my report to the SFBC I compare it to Gilliland’s Wizenbeak books, which as I recall failed to be greeted by readers with the enthusiasm they deserve. Like the Wizenbeak books, this mixes grim material – megadeaths, slavery2 – with humour and absurdity; the comic elements are enough to rescue this from being yet another grimdark science fantasy novel where grimacing protagonists coat the stage in blood while massacring enough people to give themselves room to swing their swords. This has horrific events but it also has Mad Queen Wensomer’s weaponized belly dancing.
This is the first time I have reread this since June 21, 2002. I got this as a manuscript from the SFBC and since manuscript are a pain to store3 and I never saw it in stores, I did not own my own personal copy until now (Thank you, Leah). I liked it, Andrew liked it, I assume Ellen Asher liked it but my memory is the readers treated it with cruel indifference. Bastards.
Voyage of the Shadowmoon and its sequels — Glass Dragons, Voidfarer, and The Time Engine — are all available from Tor Books.
- Let us just say “the one where the protagonist notices a building “in the Georgian style” in a book set in the year AD 1,380,000”.
- I would have been a lot happier without the whole Senterri’s romanticism leads to her and her servant girls being subjected to serial slavery and (off-stage but frequently discussed) rape plot line. Totally unnecessary to the main plot and yes, this is the sort of world where that kind of thing happens but the author chose to make it that way.
- It would not have helped if it had been an ARC because at that time I had to send back any ARC I liked. I only got to keep the ones I hated. I would like to assure every author whose books passed through my hands that this played no role in my assessment of them, only in my determination to find undiscriminating organizations on whom I could anonymously deposit awful, awful books.