It's easy to see, with nine of her ten novels now under my belt, why some of her critics found Emily Devenport a frustrating author. Even in her earliest works, she refused to tell the stories they expected her to tell. Sometimes, like here, it often seems like she's even refusing to tell the stories that she expected herself to tell. Some people will hate that about her.
Oddly, I think it's my very favourite aspect of her work. I've learned that I just can't assume anything in a Devenport novel, because I know that, when I least expect it, she's going to take some wild left turns, plural, to make me completely reevaluate everything that I've read that far. I utterly adore how she keeps me on the hop as a reader. I wish I could find another author that does that remotely as well as she does.
Even if this was my very first experience of her work, the first chapter would have captivated me anyway. Just check out the first two paragraphs:
Andrei Mironenko walked the dimly lit corridor of Archangel Station fully alert and with every system in his danger suit functioning perfectly. Yet he did not see Grigory until he came face-to-face with the pair of blood stones that filled the sockets where the man's eyes used to be.
"Mironenko," said Grigory.
How great is that? I have no idea who Andrei Mironenko is, but I expect that he's some variety of Russian from the name. He's clearly a man of importance because he's wearing a high tech danger suit, whatever that is. I know that I already want one and I'm only one sentence into the book. And who or what is Grigory who has gemstones for eyes and can see people anyway?
Well, we're in the dim and distant future (Year of the Republic 19017) and Mironenko is one of a number of insanely rich and powerful men who chooses to turn an alien planet into his father's dream, a reproduction of the old Earth nation of Belarus but governed by a Bill of Rights. It's a lofty goal and we're in close to the beginning, with a world designer hard at work and colonists being shipped in to give life to what she creates.
This would be a fascinating novel if it never went any further than that, a deep four-hundred-page exploration of how to turn an alien planet into a new and very specific home. I have to remind you, however, that this is an Emily Devenport novel, even if she chose to use a new pseudonym for the occasion, so it was never going to be just that. It's a heck of a lot more and that's highlighted from the outset.
Chapter one runs a mere eight pages, but it speaks volumes. The new planet over which Mironenko will be Tsar is the third around an alien sun, while his space station orbits a gas giant further out, mining it. It's there that a set of alien derelicts attacked his men, almost killing them. We learn how Grigory lost his eyes, a story tied up in hi-tech cybernetics and old school patronage. That gives us a grounding in the socio-political nature of the entire Republic and what a couple of key characters think about that. Wild tech and cultural weirdness, alien threats and high concepts; it's all here in chapter one. And I haven't even mentioned the old witch Baba Yaga. She's in there too.
And it only gets stranger from there as a number of mysteries manifest. The derelicts have no discernable power source or energy signature, but they've maintained their orbits for maybe twenty thousand years without decay. Oh, and they have patterned walls that turn into chambers of death, even though the trillions of networked sprites which examined them ahead of colonisation triggered nothing. A set of hints suggest that there's someone working against Mironenko but for unknown reasons, someone who may not be entirely sane. And, fifty pages in, we're given a glimpse at a truly alien race of cannibalistic sadists.
Yeah, it's that sort of book. It's a space opera. It's a first contact book. It's a generational family saga. It's a far future novel rooted in ancient folklore. And it becomes, at points, a police procedurala search for a serial killer in a creation where everything is connected and nothing can hideand, in its way, a horror novel. Devenport's ambition is never in doubt and, even if she leaves much for the sequel, ‘Enemies’, this book does wrap up well.
One of its joys is that, while we know that everything's going to be tied together with the larger story of the nascent world of Belarus, we're never entirely sure what the sides are. Is this as simple as Andrei Mironenko and his team versus Solan-Ko and Ayat-Ko and these agreeably alien aliens? Where does the mysterious Loki come in? Is it Mironenko vs. Loki with the aliens a wild and dangerous complicating factor? Is this serial killer going to join the other side? How does the apparently not-mythical Baba Yaga play into this game? Do we safely assume that the alien derelicts belong to Solan-Ko's race or do we wonder if they're the product of another, with whom this one warred so emphatically that Belarus appeared to be uninhabited?
So many questions, so little time. And none of that even hints at which left turn Devenport takes. I don't believe I've read another novel with a higher body count and the vast majority of that takes place at a serious remove, an approach that renders it somehow even more devastating. Certainly, it shakes up everything in ways I'm not going to disclose and you really ought to find out by reading this book.
There's so much here that a thousand-word review simply cannot do it justice because the wealth of ideas is such that merely thinking about the book once it's done generates entirely new possibilities. This is deep stuff, rich and immersive, and I adored it. I'll admit that some of the subplots are treated better than others. One key one built rather simply and wrapped up a little easily, but I enjoyed it anyway and others developed with more depth.
At the end of the day, I'm not sure if I'm more upset that I only have one more 'Belarus' novel left to read or that it also constitutes only one more Emily Devenport. Hey, at least she has a new one coming out in July and I'm just as eager to dive back into the world of Oichi in 'Medusa in the Graveyard' then as I am to revisit Belarus in 'Enemies'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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