What if? Two of the most important words in any fiction writer’s arsenal, take on special meaning to those who posit realities alternate to the ones we experience in their work. While some would regulate works of fantasy to a lower tier of literature than what they refer to as serious fiction, some of the world’s greatest writers have taken us into alternate histories and realities. From the works of Shakespeare (what would you call The Tempest or Midsummer’s Night Dream if not fantasy?) to the work of the late great South American magic realists Jorge Louis Borge and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, fantasy when properly executed can be every bit as creative and literate as any other writing.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t a great deal of dreck being published under the fantasy label — like all the romance novels being passed off as fantasy because the authors have thrown in a vampire or a werewolf as the dark brooding hero in place of the man with the mysterious past. Thankfully there are enough authors working at the other end of the spectrum to offset the piles of crap being dumped on us by publishers. Some of the better ones can be found penning the books slotted under the sub-category of either world building or alternative histories. While you can still find escapist fodder among these, the book equivalent of a Home Box Office mini-series, others are intricate and sophisticated works which not only bring a particular era of human history to life but also postulate fascinating ways in which a particular civilization could have evolved differently under the right circumstances.
Sculptor and author Aidan Harte’s Irenicon, published by Quercus Books, is a particularly fascinating example of this style. The first book in his The Wave Trilogy introduces us to a world based on Italy and Europe in the early days of the Renaissance, but with some key cultural and scientific differences. Unlike our world the son of God did not survive to be crucified and his mother Mary was tasked with the job of spreading the word of the new religion. While the new creed has still managed to become dominant across Europe, over the course of the book we gradually begin to understand how this difference has impacted on the philosophical underpinnings of this world.
Much like our world at this time, the majority of this Europe is made up of independent city states. However, looming over them all as a constant threat is the Concordian Empire. Having conquered or subjugated most of the city states they are now bleeding them dry through annual tribute payments. The Empire’s rulers are past masters of the divide and conquer mentality and have successfully managed to quell any potential resistance to their rule by turning their fiercest opponents against each other. No better example of this can be found in the city state which was their biggest obstacle to rule, Rasenna.
The Empire split the city in two by unleashing The Wave. They had learned how to harness and control water through a combination of science and technology and force it to obey their commands. They literally sent a wave through the middle of Rasenna which created a river dividing the town in half. The physical division successfully broke whatever unity existed in the city and set the various districts and their controlling families into conflict with each other in an effort to control the remains of the city. Similar to the Contrade (or districts) of renaissance Siena, each family and their followers guard their borders jealously. Occasional raids across the river via ropes and roof tops result in casualties on all sides and ensure the rivalry between the districts never abates.
Sofia Scaligeri, while residing and fighting with one of the main families embroiled in the conflicts, is also the heir to the title of Contessa of Rasenna. While the city’s equivalent of a general assembly or town council continues to meet, factionalism has rendered it useless. So even if Scaligeri comes into her title she can’t see much hope in bringing her people together under one banner. However, aid comes to her from two very unlikely sources, The Empire itself and the aging Mother Superior of the local equivalent of a convent. The Empire has sent one of its infamous engineers, the same group of men who utilized the Wave technology to split the city, in order to build a bridge spanning the river.
They need a bridge in order to facilitate the movement their armies in an attempt to consolidate their power in the region. However, the building of the bridge is also seen by some in Rasenna as an opportunity to reunite the two halves of the city. While some see it as a threat to their power base, the Mother Superior, who belongs to no faction, understands this could be the chance for the city to recover itself. However in order to do so they will need a leader who will be able to counter the Empire’s technological control of water. The nuns are the diametrical opposites of the engineers; they don’t seek to dominate the natural forces of the world, instead they teach a practice of working with an element’s innate power to give one strength.
What elevates Irenicon above the usual run of the mill fantasy read is Harte’s ability to bring his vision of an alternate history to life. Instead of bogging the story down with explanations and descriptions of the world he’s created, he allows us the opportunity to gradually become immersed in its realities through his characters and the plot. While this might require some patience on the part of readers as we try and piece together the conflicting philosophies underpinning the various factions motivations and actions, the technique also allows readers to become completely immersed in the world.
Somehow Harte manages to combine a series of intricate plots lines, intriguing characters and the creation of his version of renaissance Europe without ever becoming confusing. At the same time he doesn’t insult a reader’s intelligence by spelling anything out for us. While there’s always an element of escapism inherent to any work of fantasy, Harte proves the genre can be as thought provoking and intelligence as any other work of fiction. Anyone with a fascination for European history, in particular the Italian renaissance, will take great pleasure in his attention to detail involving all aspects of his creation. From its religion, its nascent technology and all the way through to its social structure, he has created a world that could have easily stepped out of any history book, but which is infinitely more interesting.[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00FO5W6LW]