'GodHeads' was the last of the six novels Emily Devenport wrote under that name for Roc in the nineties and it seems like an odd way to end. She was developing themes and progressing as a writer and she achieves things here that are truly stunning. How could it be an end? Well, she did carry on writing, so it was only a sort of end. Roc published her next three books as well: one of similar length as Maggy Thomas and then two longer works as Lee Hogan. I'm looking forward to seeing how those progress, because this is the exact link I was waiting to find between her early books and her newest, 'Medusa Uploaded'.
And that means that it's going to a bitch to review! Devenport really doesn't make it easy on critics because it's as difficult to avoid spoilers in 'GodHeads' as it was in 'Medusa Uploaded'. Please understand that I'm going to miss out a crazy amount of stuff here in order to not spoil the book for you. The tl;dr version is "Read. This. Book."
What you need to know before picking it up is that it's a kinda sorta sequel to 'EggHeads', which was her fourth novel, written on the other side of the very different 'The Kronos Condition'. However, it's entirely readable as a standalone novel, because it's set long after 'EggHeads' with almost entirely new characters. Sure, we revisit the planet Storm and the sinister location known as OMSK and we meet up with An again, albeit in a very different form, but this isn't a parallel story the way that 'Larissa' was to 'Shade', revisiting certain events from a different perspective.
'EggHeads' ended as An located the lost civilisation known as the Earlies and brought them back to our end of the universe. 'GodHeads' begins long after they've become comfortable again and having turned the planet Storm into GodWorld, upon which the GodHeads have progressed into becoming an interconnected network of minds which I struggled to visualise until I realised that it's kind of like the Prize in 'Highlander', just for everyone.
And, with that, based on the back cover blurb and how the book begins, this is what we think it's going to be...
Edna has been in cryogenic sleep for a thousand years, after having committed some sort of forgotten heinous act. She's been awakened by the scientists on OMSK, where An got her RNA drips in 'EggHeads', and they've wiped her personality completely away and replaced it with another. She doesn't know who she was or what she did, but she's now programmed to work a covert mission to visit GodWorld and infiltrate the Net. The GodHeads don't want anyone connected to OMSK to be part of it, so the powerful Bomarigala (power is quantified by the number of syllables in a name) is sending Edna, whom he believes will be invited in, to become a gateway. She's accompanied by an experienced agent called Aten, who alternates chapters with her so that we see things unfold from two different perspectives.
They're accompanied by a family of X'GBri, an eight-foot-tall humanoid species whom we first met in 'EggHeads'. They weren't particularly interesting there, a vague combination of Klingons and Borg, but she goes into some magnificent detail here. The species has far more males than females, for instance, so they've evolved a matriarchal society under which each female has a collection of husbands. They think differently to humans in many ways and the culture clashes are fascinating.
What makes it even more special is that there's a telepathic connection between three of these characters, all of whom have been infected with a synthetic version of GodWeed, the ingestion of which is how a being becomes a GodHead and thus part of the Net. The three are Edna, Aten and an X'GBri by the name of KLse. Devenport explores this link well, not just showing us the obvious benefits but also the side effects and unexpected boons. Imagine being part of a threeway telepathic bond while the other two are having sex.
So that's what we think this book's going to be and it is, except it isn't.
What stunned me most about 'Medusa Uploaded' is that I was never quite sure what I was reading because I'd never read a book that switched things up on me so often. It always made sense, but it felt like I began reading while curled up in the smallest of a set of Matryoshka dolls and Devenport was gradually letting me in on the fact that I was also in a slightly bigger one. And another. And another. And holy crap, she kept on going! Well, she does it here too.
A third of way in, she hits us with a very neat revelation. It's not an entirely unexpected one as it's telegraphed but it's handled very well and I didn't see it coming. Not too long afterwards, though, as we're re-evaluating the eighty pages we've read thus far, she hijacks her plot and drives it down a completely different road. As we try to come to terms with that, she shuffles our expectations like a trickster god playing the shell game until we're left pondering on everyone's motivations and trying to get back ahead of the author. At which point, she yanks the entire floor out from under us with a glorious twist that deserves all the praise it can get.
From then on, we're treated to flashbacks, visions, trips, dreams and a whole slew of interactions that I'd dearly love to explain but can't because every single one of them would spoil the book. This is bravado stuff, an early (pun not intended) novel not merely expanded but evolved to a completely different level. By the time we finish the 330 or so pages, we wonder how the heck the author managed to cram so much into them and whether our heads are still intact after she blew our minds.
Given that there are so many obvious comparisons here, not in plot but in approach, to 'Medusa Uploaded', the next novel published under the name of Emily Devenport no less than two decades later, I find myself intrigued as to where she went in the meantime. I'm presuming sideways but I won't know until I devour 'Broken Time' in March. That's the novel she wrote as Maggy Thomas. I'm on target to review her two Lee Hogan books as well before July, as that's when Tor will be publishing 'Medusa in the Graveyard', which I've been eagerly awaiting since I turned the last page of 'Medusa Uploaded'.
But hey, if you want your mind blown before then, read the excellent 'EggHeads' and then make sure you're in a comfortable chair so that 'GodHeads' can rearrange your brain. ~~ Hal C Astell
For other titles by Emily Devenport click here