by Aidan Harte
Reviewed by Adam Armstrong
History is filled with great people who have made tremendous impacts on the world. These people acquire many followers as well as enemies. They have their fair share of near misses with death that could have dramatically changed the outcome of mankind. What if a horse ran down Gandhi when he was in college in London? What if Lincoln drowned while canoeing down Sangomon River? What if Herod was successful in killing Christ as a baby? Mr. Harte attempts to answer the last question.
Rasenna is the strongest city in this parallel version of middle-aged Italy. Decades before the story begins, another powerful city, Concord uses a technology known as the Wave to send the river, Irenicon, through the center of Rasenna separating it into north and south and killing the leaders. Now Rasenna is torn apart by infighting. Sofia, by far the best warrior, is about to become the Contessa on her seventeenth birthday. She will inherit a city that will soon destroy itself. Harte throws us right into the action at the beginning. We get a good understanding of the city and how the denizens fight with one another: they use a distinct type of martial arts and flags to do battle. The only real problem at the beginning is that we are introduced to so many characters that it quickly gets confusing who is who. Aside from Sofia and Doc, the rest of the names are Italianesque and are easily confused with one another.
Concord decides to send one of its engineers to build a bridge in the middle of Rasenna, uniting the city once again. All other attempts to build a bridge have failed due to creatures known as Buio that live in the water. They attack and drown anyone who gets in the water or near it. But the engineer, Giovanni, has a device to keep the Buio at bay. The city is distrustful of Giovanni and his plans to build a bridge, especially Sofia. Both sides would have something to lose if they were able to easily cross back and forth. But Doc manipulates everyone into allowing the engineer to work. Concord wants the bridge for its army to cross to the south, it doesn’t really need Rasenna to be there.
Giovanni is initially aggravated by the fact he can't get the city to work together. Every time he gets a little ahead there is sabotage or a mini revolt. But he finds a way to unite them by finding an old statue that fell in the river. The statue represents what the city used to be. The controlling powers see nothing but trouble in the city uniting, however Doc sees it as a way to get everything he wants. A series of politically motivated murders brings Concord's wraith down on Rasenna. Sofia is captured and taken to the ultimate prison where she learns a secret that could destroy Rasenna from the inside.
Aside from the bumpy start with the names, we are introduced into an interesting and very thoroughly developed world. Harte sculpted his alternative history out of actual history and beliefs. This mirroring lends a certain level of believability and realism to the novel. Also the political power play makes Rasenna life relatable as politics have always been ugly even though each generation thinks this time is the worst. The religion built around the worship of the Madonna instead of Christ is also fascinating, but Harte keeps it firmly in the backstory where it belongs.
While the world building is top notch the action can be a bit strained at times. Art Bandiera was an interesting fighting form; Water Style was part Jeet Kune Do and part magical nonsense. Giving the protagonist too much power leads to The Matrix syndrome. If the protagonist can fight with little effort we all stop caring because there is no struggle. And the siege battle near the end of the book felt a little like the battle at the end of Army Of Darkness, a bit silly at times for a serious book.
Sofia's escape and journey abroad seemed misplaced and interrupted the flow of the novel. It did introduce some interesting characters like Levi and John Acuto. Also the concept of hiring soldiers to fight wars as being more civilized was an interesting idea. This part of the novel was well written, it just felt awkwardly wedged in. Along with that there were historian notes in between some of the chapters. It was something Jeff VanderMeer or Mark Z. Danielewski would do but it only went on for a bit and didn't really add anything.
All that aside, Irenicon was a fresh read that brought us into a wonderfully developed world. It is the first book of a trilogy but it does wrap itself up nicely. It has enough intrigue, action, and betrayal to keep you turning the pages. And, though I don't think it was meant this way, it is YA friendly and gives the young ones something to read other than lazy vampire novels.
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