Sitting down to review Theatre of the Gods this morning, I tried four or five introductions on for size before settling on this artless admission. In one, I wondered about the worth of first impressions; in another, I took to task the formula so much contemporary science fiction follows. I attempted academia; I had a stab at something snappy.
Nothing seemed quite right.
Hours had passed before I realised my mistake, which is to say there is no right way to start discussing M. Sudain’s debut; no single question I could ask, or statement make, which would somehow inform all that follows... because Theatre of the Gods is like nothing else I have ever read.
Large parts of it are certainly reminiscent of novels by an array of other genre authors: I’d name Nick Harkaway, but also Adam Roberts, Ned Beauman, Felix J. Palma and K. J. Parker. At points, Suddain put me in mind of Mark Z. Danielewski, even. So no, it’s not entirely original. Call it a composite, or literary patchwork, perhaps. Yet it’s stitched together with such vision and ambition that it feels completely unique.
Theatre of the Gods is sure to confound its critics, and divide its readership equally: though some will love it, a number are entirely likely to loathe the thing. I’d sympathise with either reaction. To address the false starts we began with, I’ll say it makes a fantastic first impression, after which it follows no formula I’ve ever heard of. It’s very, very clever, and incredibly memorable.
That there’s something different about this book is evident from the outset. The copyright page is laid out in the shape of a five-pointed star; a pentagram, presumably. A list of illustrations follow, alongside a puzzling note that they’re missing from this edition — the only edition that exists, unless you include the original “hyper-dimensional text [which] would have featured [...] borders, miniatures and ornamental scrolling type typical of illuminated manuscripts of its time” in addition to this absent artwork.
Fore and aft of this metafictional madness, a publisher’s note pre-empts a few words from the pen of the so-called author, a Mr. V. V. S. Volcannon. At length, Volcannon insists his only role was to record the confessions of M. Francisco Fabrigas, “explorer, philosopher, heretical physicist, mystic, transmariner, cosmic flâneur,” though another voice has already informed us that the chronicler in question was blacklisted and forced into exile following the first professed publication of Theatre of the Gods.
The novel’s authorship is in question, then, such that it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Suddain is no more or less invented than Fabrigas and Volcannon. I go too far, perhaps, yet it’s hard to imagine that Theatre of the Gods is anyone’s debut; it’s so astute and assured that the mind positively boggles.
That said, it’s almost impenetrable. And it doesn’t get a great deal easier from here:
The story of M. Francisco Fabrigas and the Great Crossing is a strange and wonderful tale and I’ve done my best to present it as it was told to me by the old master. I have spent an ungodly amount of time fleshing out his confessions, following the path of the Necronaut and its crew of misfits, speaking to eyewitnesses, hunting down fragments of journals and news stories, checking and rechecking every detail, and compiling a meticulous account of this historic human voyage through the Omnicosmos. For what it’s worth, I believe the old man really did undertake an expedition to the next universe, aided by a handsome deaf boy and beautiful and cunning blind girl. He failed, of course, and the children died horribly. But I hope you enjoy this story anyway. For as I said earlier, practically every word is true, others less so, and some, like these, are not true at all.
I’m sorry, say what?
And as to plot... let’s just not. Suffice it to say there’s an awful lot. Tellingly, the author regularly interjects to offer sympathetic summaries of the story so far. This excerpt abbreviates the first 50 pages:
Oh, I know, I know, I know, this is all hellishly confusing. A man arrives in a space-saucer and claims to have travelled from another universe — a universe identical to this one — except that he has already left to travel to the next universe. He is thrown into prison for cosmic heresy, later freed on a trumped-up exoneration based largely on a dream about a starfish and a giant clam. Ah! It is infinitely confounding. Black is up, left is white, and nothing is as it seems. I would not blame you in the slightest if you went off to read that lovely romance book your husband bought you for your name day: Captain A’Rod’s Crimson Whip. [But] do hang tight. In time it all becomes clearer, I promise.
To a certain extent, it does indeed. Nevertheless, Theatre of the Gods is an inescapably complex novel. The thread at its centre is straightforward enough — a mad scientist and his cadre of last-chance companions explore another universe in a repurposed pirate galleon — but layer upon layer of complication make it difficult to unpick. There are secondary perspectives aplenty; frequent flashes backwards, forwards and in various other directions as well. Additional enigmatic narratives arise whenever the core story threatens to come together.
Little wonder that readers are regularly reminded that “if at any time you feel afraid and need a moment to recover, you can turn to [...] your Little Page of Calmness,” which has kittens and things.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
You must be wondering if all this is a touch too much. Well, far be it from me to answer a simple question simply. That would hardly be in the spirit of Theatre of the Gods, so instead I’ll assert that it is... and it isn’t. The infinite obstacles discussed above make this novel, as much as they may break it for some.
Your only choice is to swallow the whole thing, hook, line and sinker. If you can’t do that, don’t bother. If you can? Then M. Sudain’s your man.
In short, Theatre of the Gods is a mad bastard of a book, set to the tune of a raving loon. It’s a steampunk space opera like no other. An antidote to the repetition common in contemporary science fiction which makes an unforgettable first impression, and the feeling that you’re reading — nay, experiencing — something singular persists until the vast narrative’s last flabbergasting gasp.
It says so much about M. Sudain’s daring debut that I still can’t begin to tell you whether I loved it or loathed it. One or the other, though. Or, I suppose, a little of both. I won’t, however, ever forget it... unless I can find a way to read it for the first time a second time. Ask me again then!
Theatre of the Gods is available June 27 2013 from Random House.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.