Welcome to Rasenna, a shining city-state turned failed state, where river spirits haunt the streets and mistake themselves for the citizens they’ve drowned. Rasenna’s people hide in their towers at night, and even by day fear the river their enemy wielded to cut their city in two. With the city’s legitimate ruling house reduced to one girl not yet of age, the closest thing it has to law is the twenty-year vendetta between the gang that rules north of the Irenicon and the gang that rules to its south. Both sides boast masters of a martial art perfectly organic to the world of this book, one that could arise in no other.
Can a city recover from two decades of grief, madness, and self-destruction? Can these people change in time to save themselves? They’d better, because the rival city of sorcerous Engineers that smashed them before may well do so again. The masters of Concord have striven to perfect their Wave technology. Any city they choose to strike now will be scoured from the soil of Etruria.
Meanwhile — what are the Concordians playing at? — the enemy sends Rasenna an Engineer to build a bridge over the hated river. It’s a bridge no Rasenneisi citizen wants. The Irenicon and its water spirits are not keen to be bridged, either.
Aidan Harte has been justly praised for his world-building in his debut novel. Irenicon is, almost, what we might get if Italo Calvino’s classic Invisible Cities had lingered for a few hundred pages in one of its gem-perfect vignettes. Almost, except that Harte’s stunning gift for setting does not yet extend to dialogue, characterization, or prose style. Irenicon will not be a classic, but it is a fine, fun read.
The underage Contessa is a charming mix of teenage cluelessness and incipient individual brilliance. Her guardian, the enigmatic Doctor Bardini, is the most completely realized character in the novel. A loyal servant of the Contessa’s grandfather, Bardini has sacrificed everything, including his conscience, to preserve her chance to rule. Their relationship shifts many times, sometimes quite movingly, as young Sofia pieces together the things he has done for the sake of her power and hidden for the sake of her innocence.
The Concordian Engineer, a disgraced man given one last chance to redeem his position by bridging an unbridgeable river in an unbridgeable city, defies everyone’s expectations. He will not be the villain Rasenna expects, nor can he ever be innocent after the things he has done in Concord’s service. When it comes to Rasenna’s steady state of civil war, with its intricate conspiracies and betrayals, Giovanni is a babe in the woods. His blunders in matters of local politics nearly get him killed. Not all of the locals who come under his protection make it to the last page. Yet, as the agent of an empire that despises him and as the master of some truly weird science, he’s in some ways the most powerful person in the city.
The dialogue between Giovanni and Sofia comes so close to taking off. Like one of Leonardo’s flying machines, it has several of the right ideas, but thuds to earth again and again under the weight of Hollywood-influenced banter.
Irenicon would make a perfect action film. Aidan Harte gives us a pretty good view of the movie he must have seen in his mind while he was writing. The flashing banners of Rasenna’s homegrown martial art, the glorious decay of a city that breeds endless tension, the disturbing chill of Concord’s purity and the darkness at its foundation, and (oh my!) the uncanny otherness of the river spirits could be the making of a summer blockbuster. The characters and their voices are just what we would expect to find in that medium. I’d probably go see that hypothetical movie more than once in the theaters, babysitting expenses be damned. I look forward to the sequels. I’m rooting for Harte, hoping he matures into the novelist I can imagine him becoming.
I don’t think I’ll be giving this novel multiple readings, though.
I recommend Irenicon for almost anyone who likes fantasy, historical novels, or alternate history — anyone, with the exception of readers who are uncomfortable with sideways reinterpretations of Christianity, because Harte’s first great divergence from the history we know is that Herod succeeded in killing the infant Jesus. There’s a Church here, but its Blessed Virgin’s suffering and intercession arise from a very different story from any she’s had in our world. It’s an intriguing what-if in a book full of intriguing what-ifs.
What if Aidan Harte someday gets his he-saids and she-saids to rise to the level of his what-ifs? Why, then we’d see the advent of some classics.
Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.