Confluence by Paul McAuley

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Confluence by Paul McAuley

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Category: Dystopian Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: JY Saville
Reviewed by JY Saville
Summary: This well-crafted science fiction epic deals with big questions of philosophy as all the best sci-fi should. It does so in a detailed and lovingly created future world, with engaging characters whose quest should entice sword and sorcery or high fantasy fans as well. In short, highly recommended to a wide range of speculative fiction readers.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 944 Date: August 2015
Publisher: Gollancz
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0575119420

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Yama is a foundling orphan adopted as a baby by the Aedile (chief civil servant) of a small city downriver of the mighty, ancient city of Ys, capital of the man-made world of Confluence. Longing to become a soldier and take his late brother's place in the long-running war against the heretics, the restless seventeen-year-old is about to be taken as an apprentice clerk despite his young age, to keep him out of trouble. Destiny, however, has other plans for him.

In this new Confluence omnibus edition, there are revised versions of the novels in the trilogy (Child of the River, Ancients of Days, Shrine of Stars) plus two short stories relating to the main story arc (All Tomorrow's Parties, Recording Angel). Child of the River sets the scene and takes us to the end of Yama's childhood, the end of innocence. Ancients of Days fills us in on the history of Confluence and how it works, as well as how the war started. Shrine of Stars largely deals with the war itself, and Yama's unique place in history. I wasn't sure how All Tomorrow's Parties fit in, and I'd recommend leaving an interval between Shrine of Stars and the two short stories to avoid spoiling the neat, satisfied feeling at the end of the trilogy.

The world-creation in this book was wonderful, I was completely immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of Confluence, its myths and religion. I can see fans of Frank Herbert's Dune novels particularly appreciating the scope and detail here. I loved the mix of the medieval and futuristic: prized antique plastic armour that no-one knows how to make any more; ancient screens showing films about the deceased outside tombs in the rambling, unsafe City of the Dead; the hierarchy and ritual in society.

The whole story conveys faded glory and the decay of the world. The Preservers are said to have manufactured Confluence, changed the orbits of stars, then disappeared into a black hole many centuries ago. They left behind their creations, the 10,000 bloodlines who now worship the absent Preservers, but much knowledge has been lost or corrupted. The world is full of artefacts whose significance is lost, and the Aedile spends most of his time and energy on archaeological digs that don't seem to enlighten him.

Although this is definitely a science fiction trilogy, there are a couple of aspects that will make it appeal to high fantasy or sword and sorcery fans as well. One is Yama's quest to discover his lineage, the other is the prevalence of (apparent) magic and religion. By the end of Child of the River, Yama has made a couple of good friends and embarked on a series of adventures as he begins his quest. We know from the back cover blurb that he appears to be the last of the Builders (a race that can control the machines of the world), but Yama himself struggles to find anything out because the few people who do know something about his origins aren't telling him, either because they see him as too unimportant to bother with, or because they want to use him for their own ends. And there are plenty of the latter, particularly connected to the war.

Yama is constantly fought over by different people and factions that want him to help them, or want to use his machine-controlling powers - powers that he slowly begins to explore and understand. The 'magic' in the book usually has some rational explanation, even if it's not apparent at the time. I liked that internal consistency, which meant that Yama's powers or anyone else's 'magical' artefacts or abilities weren't get-out-of-jail-free cards, so there was genuine tension and some shocking setbacks. The war downriver against the heretics is a constant presence, driving the actions of many people in the book, and in Shrine of Stars where it comes centre stage, the pointless waste and desolation of war are put across well.

Ancients of Days has hints of Gormenghast in the fights within corridors of the Palace of the Memory of the People in Ys, and the houses and markets within its sprawling boundaries. The levels of bureaucracy are marvellous, the forms to be filled and stamped and taken to the right place at the right time or you start over again. The libraries and archives, oral histories and stories of the bloodlines. History is important to these people, so much so that the world is ossifying.

The way Paul McAuley manages to create, describe and differentiate the different races and creatures of Confluence reminded me of the way Tad Williams does it in the Shadowmarch trilogy so readers may be interested in his Shadowplay. You might also enjoy Austral by Paul McAuley.

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