Feb 10, 2017

Weird Worlds

On Zachary Jernigan's Jeroun

I've been meaning to write something about this book - an omnibus edition of Zachary Jernigan's two novels set on the world of Jeroun - for quite some time. I read both novels shortly after they came out, and I feel that they represent pretty much everything that I want from fantasy and often sorely miss; they have a breathtakingly original setting, characters that aren't reduced to their special skills, quips and some overarching mission, and they are tightly narrated and yet stilistically remarkable. While, in terms of genre, they could be called science fantasy, I think that would be doing them a disservice. The world they are set in is so organic that it feels wrong to describe this book as some kind of genre hybrid. It may sound redundant, but Jeroun really just is what it is; it has poisonous seas and alien, eye-less dragons; it has half-gods that have been poured from a jar; it has ghosts of the dead and decadent sorcerers who use alchemy to travel to space.

I've already written a review of the first book, No Return, in German, but for some reason, I never got around to reviewing the second one. Since late is better than never, I'll review the omnibus edition of the duology, drawing on my old German review of No Return, and, more importantly, from whatever still sticks with me more than a year after reading the second book. Which is actually quite a lot.

No Return starts with a mesmerizing prologue about a degenerated people living in a remote valley at the shores of a salt lake: "„perhaps the most beautiful lake in the world. A deep and flawlessly clear cerulean blue under the cloudless sky … the people neither fished nor set craft upon its surface. Now and then, they drank and collapsed on the shore, subject to visions induced by the ensorcelled liquid.“ The people living there are not only prone to psychotrophic substances, they also eat skin and bones (but not the indegistable meat) of the mummified corpses of an elder progenitor species that can be found all over the valley. The narrator tells us that such a wealth of Elder corpses would be considered a tremendous treasure anywhere else in the world (Elder bone dust, as we find out later, is sometimes used as money on Jeroun). However, the inhabitants of the valley are oblivious of this, as of pretty much everything else, since eating from the Elders does not only give them longevity, but also makes them dumb as rocks.
These thickheads live in superstitious fear of an array of spheres in the sky that keep changing formation. Actually, it turns out that this fear is not that superstitious, because these spheres are actually weapons of mass-destruction controlled by the living god Adrash, a highly sexualized hybrid of Zeus and Superman with just a dash of God from the Old Testimony. Bored, Adrash keeps re-arranging them in the sky while he contemplates using them to whipe out all life on Jeroun's surface.

And that's all in the first ten pages. Quite elegantly, we learn some key facts about the cosmology of Jeroun and its unique flair. At the same time, we become attuned to a few key motives of Jernigan's novel. Both No Return and its sequel, Shower of Stones, are books about power, eroticism and moral authority; (For No Return, that's pretty much in that order, while in Shower of Stones, eroticism is relegated to the end of the line.)

Next, we meet Vedas Tezul, a young man and one of the so-called Anadrashites, or "black suits", a religious order that expresses its refusal to worship Adrash by more or less ritualized gang-fights against the  Adrashites, or "white suits". Both sides wear suits made from the skin of Elder ones, which enter into a symbiotic relationship with their wearers and grant the expectional strength, speed and endurance. Vedas is a true believer (or rather non-believer) who has even decided to live in celibacy, not because it is required by his order, but because he doesn't want to be distracted from his duties. (However, one has to ask if he is really sacrificing anything, since his sexual desire is completely structured around a narcissistic focus on his symbiotic suit, which he never removes. It rather seems that celibacy is just one of many ways for Vedas to ward off the scary prospect of entering into meaningful relationships with other humans).
Vedas travels to the far-away city of Danoor to fight in a bloody tournament against the white suits. On the way, he gets to meet Churls, a down-on-her-luck former gladiator who is haunted by the ghost of her dead daughter, and Berun, an artificial man made of countless small, metallic spheres.

Their actual journey is much less focused on action adventure and strange vistas than one might expect - certainly, there's some brutal fighting and a poisonous, shaollow sea with strange creatures in it. But mainly, it's about the developing relationship between the three protagonists: Vedas, the young narcissist with a lot to learn; Churls, who sexually desires Vedas, but actually deals with this like a grown-up person who's able to reflect on her own feelings and on why they might be problematic; and Berun, who represents an interesting, though not totally new take on the android as child, capable of both surprising kindness and brutality.

There's a second plot thread about magicians who use potions to catapult themselves into space to worship, study or challenge Adrash, and that's full of weird magical technology, intrigue, callousness and bizarre sex - the half- and quarterbreed elders that populate it show all kinds of interesting mutations, like mouths with lecherous tongues in the hands od fists delineated in the musculature under the skin of the chest. That chapters serve as a fun and occasionally shocking counterpoint to Vedas', Churls' and Berun's more thoughtful story of friendship and desire. (Sexuality plays a big role in both stories, but in very different ways.) They also expand on the cosmology of the setting. However, throughout the first novel, the two strands never quite come together, influencing each other only very marginally, and only in the end. That's part of the reason that No Return feels unfinished, even though it was supposedly planned as a stand-alone novel. While it provides a satisfying conclusion to Vedas character arc, we learn very little about the consequences of his actions for himself, his companions and for the world of Jeroun.

So the sequel, Shower of Stones, was indeed very welcome. It brings the two narrative threads of No Return together and ties its protagonist much closer to the fate of Jeroun. The latter is actually slightly problematic; No Return stays away from the high fantasy motive of the hero, who, chosen by fate, has to save or change the world - and while Shower of Stones doesn't exactly utilizes that motive, it treads awfully close to it. On the other hand, things like re-birth and fate seem to have more to do with the ultra-tech of some ancient post-human colonizers of the poisonous planet Jeroun than with actual fate - the first chapter of Shower of Stones strenghtens an sfnal narrative for the series, without quite tying itself down to it -, so I'm pretty okay with that and would rather see that as an interesting twist to a well-worn concept.

But what's most daring about Shower of Stones is probably Jernigan's decision to never use the same perspective twice. The first chapter is told from the view-point of Shavrim, a minor character from No Return, who turns out to be a half-god, and whose fate (again that dubious term) is intricately tied to Adrash as well as to Vedas and Churls. After some pretty bigscreen greek-gods-meet-speculative-fiction moments and revelations, we move on to Churls and find out what she is ready to do to save her friend and companion Vedas. It's a pretty dark and intimate chapter full of violent deeds, delivered matter-of-factly, and it is probably Jeroun's most intense sequence.

We get another Churls chapter after that, and then a Vedas chapter, later a Berun chapter - but none of these perspectives ever comes up a second time, even though all the protagonist stay together for most of the book. This produces a very strange effect - while Shower of Stones presents an ongoing, linear story and brings it to a satisfying conclusion, it still feels as if you only get puzzle pieces. While chapter two and three are all about how Churls feels, you'll never learn what she thinks about the events of the later chapters - not from her perspective, anyway. That narrative decision is much bolder then it may sound, because it really makes you question how the different characters evaluate events and how the others might feel about them. Another consequence of this decision is that, even though Shower of Stones is nearly as long as No Return, it felt much shorter to me. The structure of the book forces a certain condensation.

Now we get to the part where I'd normally go into some specifics about the story or the characters of this second novel, but I find myself reluctant to do so. For one thing, it has been a while since I've read Shower of Stones, and a lot of the details have become sketchy in my head. Also, this review is already pretty long. There's some more stuff I'd like to mention; how much I'm in love with this world (and how much I wish there would be a sourcebook to use it for role-playing games); how heart-breaking Berun's arc in this second novel is - I haven't written nearly enough about Berun, who is such a cool character, both in terms of sheer awesomeness - a Golem made of metal spheres! - and also in terms of, well, character; but also how I felt a little let down by how the world of Jeroun still feels not quite realized in some regards - especially in Shower of Stones, I sometimes had the feeling that besides the main characters, no one was really, actually living in this very strange and forbidding place. Which is to say that I would love to read another Jeroun novel with a different focus.

One thing is for certain: I can't remember reading anything that seems so hard to describe in a long time. There's a stark beauty to this world, the character's and Jernigan's style that won't quite let go of me.

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