The year is 14,647 AD. Humankind has changed, fractured, Prismed into a dozen breeds of fairy-tale grotesques, the chaos of expansion, war and ruin flinging humanity like bouncing sparks around the blackness of space. Man has been resculpted in a hundred different places, and the world as he knew it—this world—is gone for ever.
This is the posthuman premise of The Promise of the Child: an extraordinary space opera which charts the inexorable fall of an assortment of autocratic immortals in a milieu so elaborately imagined that immersion in it is as risky as it is rewarding. Taken together with its dizzying depth and intelligence, the debut of Tom Toner, a twenty-something science-fiction savant with a sweet spot for shark teeth, has an ungodly amount going for it.
If Hannu Rajaniemi had come up with The Culture, it would have read rather like this, I think. But like The Quantum Thief before it, The Promise of the Child has an approachability problem: absent the warmth and wit that made Iain M. Banks’ books beloved, it can come across as cold, calculated and at points impenetrable.
The first difficulty those who do dedicate themselves to Toner’s text will need to deal with is its stupendous setting: “an impossibly delicate, eleven-light-year-wide ecosystem” known as the Firmament. Here, the aforementioned immortals—the Amaranthine—hold sway; that is to say, they do today, if only by dint of “the ratio of butlers, gardeners, housekeepers and paying tenants to the riff-raff that inhabited the thin wilderness—the Prism Investiture—that surrounded their huge and desolate estate, the twenty-three Solar Satrapies.”
But the Amarantine’s grip is slipping, and quickly. “There were simply too few sane Immortals now to hold their protectorates, too many slowing, uninterested minds” to effectively defend their territory:
The Prism as a whole—a loosely related amalgam of eleven hominid races populating more than a thousand individual kingdom-states—represented an encroaching and eventually terminal illness to the Firmament, a system of tumours gradually strangling the Amaranthine until there would be nothing left of them and their worlds. It was only through careful management of allies and influence that the Amaranthine still held any real power at all. But time was running out.
The most immediate threat to the Amaranthine’s centuries of supremacy comes from within, from “an enigma, a spectre-like figure” called Aaron the Long-Life, who has set in motion a grand scheme which revolves around a mysterious machine. “They called it the Shell, among other names, though exactly what it did only drunkards and cretinous beggars could say with any certainty.”
What all this has to do with The Promise of the Child‘s protagonist, and vice versa, is, for the bulk of this slow-burn of a book, absolutely baffling. In the Tenth Province of the Vaulted Lands carved into the heart of one of the countless planets of the Solar Satrapies lives Lycaste: a manifestly unhappy chappie despite the charmed life he has led, not to speak of his “angelic […] features and form.”
He had received more offers of marriage in his fifty-one years than everyone he knew combined, rejecting as a matter of course every single one of them. He had always seen his coveted reflection as a curse, not a gift, and hardly any use now that he’d managed to drive away the only girl he’d ever loved.
A hundred variously aimless pages later, when an interfering official comes to the Tenth to conduct a census of sorts and is accepted in the same sense as our melancholic main character was recently rejected, Lycaste’s unrequited affection for Pentas drives him to commit a crime almost unheard of in all the Provinces. In the aftermath of this terrible to-do, Lycaste is forced to flee, leaving his lush lands and lamentable life behind.
Little does he know that he has a date with destiny. Little, likewise, do we.
Lycaste’s is not the only perspective in The Promise of the Child, but it is by far the most prevalent, particularly in the beginning. One imagines it’s meant to represent a way in to the unimaginable vastness of this innovatively advanced intergalactic society, and given how different everything in the Firmament is, how fabulously unfamiliar it feels even to a serial science fiction reader, such signposting is necessary, no question.
Unfortunately, the larger part of Lycaste’s narrative seems so far removed from the rest of Toner’s text that it is of little practical value in that regard. And though the secondary perspectives The Promise of the Child proffers—including, among a number of others, the mortal mind behind the machine’s and that of an Amaranthine loyal to the present emperor—have markedly more bearing on the overarching narrative than Lycaste’s chapters, their affairs are related to readers so rarely that these scenes feel fleeting.
Thus, this novel has its problems: characters whose roles in the whole are muddied by the many moving pieces Toner sets in motion; a narrative so very involved that it’s often difficult to discern; and a setting so incredibly complex that getting your head around it actually hurts.
And yet, the poise and the prettiness of Toner’s prose is like gold to behold, and the all but boundless ambition of this book blew me away. It’s hard not to actively marvel at “how impossibly intricate the grand voice of the world was,” like the lock on the suitcase Lycaste steals:
The tracery on the surface of the lock was a jigsaw of segments, engraved to a standard neither of them could believe was man-made. Countless writhing figures made up a tall and long-limbed tree, its eaves drooping and coiling around a straight trunk to form a composition so complex as to be almost impossible for the eye to follow. Each unique leaf, of which there must have been thousands, looked expertly engraved, even those as small as a stitch of cloth.
To call The Promise of the Child one of the most accomplished debuts of 2015 so far is to understate its weight—instead, let me moot that is among the most significant works of science fiction released in recent years. Granted, you’ve got to give it your all, but give it that and you’ll get all that and more besides back.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.