The Promise of the Child
by Tom Toner
Gollancz ISBN 978-1-473-21137-7
“Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man,” was supposedly said by the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola. The minute I encountered Aaron at the start of this novel I thought ‘Jesuit’! Okay, maybe that’s just me, but still – this is how Aaron operates. He manipulates. But he also makes promises.
The Prologue opens in Prague, 1319, though most of the story is set unimaginably far in the future. Aaron makes the first of his many bargains, this one with a princess who is to bring him her son when he is seven years old. She has no choice. If she doesn’t hand him over, he will die, so she loses him either way. So far, so historical novel. The next section takes a huge leap forward in time. We meet Sotiris, but he’s dreaming. He understands this is an illusion, he knows what is going on. St Ignatius Loyola (yes, I’m thinking Jesuits again) also experienced a series of visions which appeared as “a form in the air near him and this form gave him much consolation because it was exceedingly beautiful ... He received much delight and consolation from gazing upon this object ... but when the object vanished he became disconsolate”. After Sotiris’ dream, we’re flung straight into classic space opera territory with a fortress under attack, various species mentioned, names that are clearly sci-fi. There is something called the ‘Shell’ that needs protecting, but no clues yet as to what that is. At this point the reader who has noticed there is a glossary at the back of the book will be breathing a sigh of relief, as the names and races are adding up rapidly.
Now then, if you don’t customarily read fantasy or sci-fi, you will probably give up at this point, fling the book down saying, too many races, too many characters, too many weird names, too much unexplained, too much chopping and changing between places and scenarios. If you persevere, however, you’ll realise you’ve got to the end of the prologue, and Part One is about to begin. The various strands will now start to be woven together, though it will be several hundred pages before you’re sure how everything relates. You’re about to meet Lycaste, and he’s going to be your guide through pretty much everything that happens from now on, which is useful because he doesn’t understand it either so we’re all in the same boat.
I’m not going to give away any more of the story, because I’m trying to tell you what it’s about, not what happens, and that’s an entirely different thing. For me, this first volume of the trilogy is about the corruption of innocence, but other readers will see different themes. There are echoes of Faust, Kierkegaard, Jonathan Swift, even the Epic of Gilgamesh, but I’ll come back to them. The whole thing is wildly weird until you start seeing it in its own terms. It is undoubtedly a great piece of complex world-building, in the grand tradition started by ‘Dune’, a book which knocked me sideways when I first read it all those years ago. The book is similarly high concept, though its world is entirely different. I’m glad it avoids the extremes of the modern steam-punk trend, while still giving a healthy nod in that direction with its rusting and patched up space ships. There’s nothing glossy and futuristic here, no clean lines; this is baroque, this is mannerist, this is as far from the anodyne sparseness of old-style futuristic sci-fi as you can get. It’s also a very long way from being hard sci-fi, and aficionados of that genre are regrettably not going to be gripped. They’ll dismiss it as soft fantasy, which is a shame. Sci-fi does not necessarily need to be bristling with hard science to be effective.
If it’s not sci-fi exactly, should we file it under fantasy? It certainly comes under that umbrella through its use of its own mythology, but it’s not sword and sorcery fantasy by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m pleased to report there are no bearded wizards in tall hats.
What we do have is intricate plotting. A large number of promises and bargains are made and broken as the story moves from the tiniest details of a young man on a beach, to a vast breakdown of society at a cosmic level. The strength of the telling is in the fact that the fate of the young man matters to the reader, more and more, and the ‘great events’ that are going on may be vitally important and inform everything that happens to Lycaste, but it’s the man himself whom we grow to care about, on a personal level.
Kierkegaard said, “...every historical era will have its own Faust.” I’m not saying our era has an exact equivalent in this novel, but some striking parallels are undoubtedly there, which I will leave you to discover. Ditto the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its long and perilous journey to discover the secret of eternal life. Gilgamesh learns that “Life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands”. If people don’t die though – what then? Jonathan Swift was the first writer in the modern era to fictionalise this concept. In Gulliver’s travels, eternal life is a curse, as the extremely elderly become more and more decrepit as the years go by. Very few film versions of the story include this nightmarish section of the book. We prefer little people and giants – and they happen to turn up in ‘The Promise of the Child’ too. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, only two humans have ever been granted immortality, and when seeking these immortals, Gilgamesh enters a paradise full of jewel-laden trees; and ‘The Promise of the Child’ is also full of paradises, of Utopias – but these are where the incredibly old go because they have become insane.
There are people in this book who are effectively immortal; they are ‘perennial’, and while there are enough of them, the old contracts hold, there is peace – but even perennials can be killed, and their numbers are falling. Old age won’t get them, they are relatively safe from that, though they will go quietly insane eventually. But anyone can have a fatal accident, often in the most banal circumstances. Throughout the novel, vast wars are being waged and old alliances are being destroyed. Aaron sees it all and knows precisely what he wants from the outcome. He is getting close. Sotiris knows what he wants too. As readers, we start rooting for Sotiris, but even he will use people, sometimes cruelly if he has to. The critical point is this: Sotiris has – or had – a sister. Aaron knows this, and uses the knowledge.
But we also know, and have known all along, that there’s something downright odd about Aaron’s shadow.
Ultimately, perhaps what this book is asking is the perennial question of what it means to be human – and its corollary: what does it mean to be something else entirely?