Richard Cowper (real name John Middleton Murry) came of illustrious literary stock. That sort of thing can destroy you as a writer, or it can make you. In Cowper’s case, it clearly had a good influence – even if he turned away from ‘literary’ writing and opted for the genres of science fiction and fantasy to tell his tales.
This gives us a wonderful mix of a highly accomplished writer allowing his imagination free range. The result is sophisticated and complex work that is also lyrical, accessible, and which touches on areas most sf&f writers steer clear of or do very badly.
In this case, the subject is religion. Most sf&f writers these days would give us a sixty thousand word prologue explaining the religion and all its by-ways; we would be ‘treated’ to pages of ceremonial and dreary descriptions of places and people before we got anywhere near a story. And then it would be handled badly.
There is nothing especially original about Cowper’s story – two religious cultures (one old, one new) clash. But instead of being portentous about it, Cowper tells us the story of individuals caught up in this conflict. Through their stories we learn of the wider conflict, but it always remains at a personal and sometimes heartbreaking level.
And if that was not enough, Cowper adds extra layers. All are beautifully portrayed; all treat the reader with intelligence. We do not need to have things explained if the writer weaves these things into their tale. We are given enough to see what the writer means, yet not so much that we cannot then apply our own imagination. Cowper does this wonderfully. The hints of ecological disaster, the way the past affects the future, the way actions have consequences, the way that failure to act also has consequences.
This book is the first of a trilogy and this edition contains the novella which inspired the rest of the story. I read them both a long time when they were first published, but have only now managed to find a set of all three. I am looking forward very much to seeing how Cowper develops what has happened so far. If he keeps to the standard of this first book, I am not going to be disappointed.