Saturday, July 22, 2017

12. A Dangerous Energy by John Whitbourn

I picked this up in another dollar bin outside a used bookstore, but I can't remember exactly where, somewhere in Vancouver of Victoria.  It just looked interesting and honestly I don't know if it is my honed instinct or that the Goddess of Reading is just blessing me these days but it was another total winner.  Probably more learned and erudite fans of fantasy and science fiction are well aware of Whitbourn's work.  I hope so.  If not, I hope my review will encourage you to seek him out.

Ostensibly, this is a bildungsroman in an alternate reality where the Reformation never happened.  The setting is the primary interest at first, a world where the Roman Catholic church dominates, there is subtle magic in the world (originally of wilder origins but now harnessed and controlled by the church for the most part), colonization is severely limited compared to our world and technology and commerce advancing at a much slower pace.

The story starts in the late 60s and ends in 2026.  Young Tobias Oakley encounters an elf in the forest outside his village who teaches him the rudiments of magic.  This leads him to be shunned by his village, discovered by a priest whose job it is to discover those with the magical gift and then sent to a magical Catholic college in London.  The rest of the book details his conflicts and rise to power, both in the world and in his use of magic.

If any of this sounds interesting to you, I would suggest you stop reading here and just seek this book out.  Anything more I say here, though not explicitly a spoiler, would ruin the wonderment and pleasure of where Winterbourn is going with this book.  I will add that it is pretty fucked up and super dark. 

Because A Dangerous Energy is really about a descent into evil.  Oakley is understandably driven by ambition, but with a singular focus that makes him worthy of a book but also pushes him farther and farther away from morality and ultimately even humanity.  It is done very subtly and there are many moments in the book where there is an opportunity for him to get back on the right path.  Each time, he chooses (or is not able) to stay on the wrong path.  And slowly it starts to rot out his soul.  The language is rich but not flowery, told in an omniscient almost matter-of-fact way that blindsides the reader into the atrocities Oakley undertakes.  It all makes so much sense in the narrative that you have to step back and remind yourself how horrible he has become. 

There is also a nice touch where each chapter is titled with descriptive phrases along the lines of very early novels:  "In which our hero goes to London and is obliged to remain there", "In which our hero receives help from the friend that he helped, and a problem is solved satisfactorily".  These are absolutely accurate descriptions of what goes on in that chapter, except the details are generally super dark and nasty, which adds to the cold irony of the book's presentation.

A lot of his ambition, as he becomes a more powerful magician, is around the development of his understanding of summoning magic.  The imagery around his attempts to contact demons is evocative and the procedures and details of how it all works really cool.  Things like the demons' names, the locations they appear in, how they come into our world are all novel takes that are super entertaining (and gameable).

Likewise, the alternate history itself is fully thought out, but only revealed as is needed to inform the narrative (with a few bits and pieces of material interspersed to add depth like questions from a history exam, excerpts from books, etc.).  I am not well informed on the religious history of Christianity nor a huge fan of alternate realities and this was delivered in such a way to keep my interest (that's putting it mildy) and allow me to keep it all clear in my head more or less.

A great read, strongly recommended.  It is part of a series, too (not with this character, I assume, but taking place in the same world).  Added to my list!

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