Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The Fire Opal Mechanism by Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde returns to the Gemworld in a bite-sized multi-layered time travel adventure
Cover Art by Tommy Arnold
What will the current era of fantasy and science fiction literature be remembered for, hundreds of years in the future? It's a question usually asked in a much shorter timeframe and in a cautionary context: just as most books, even the most beloved, of one or two or three hundred years ago have been forgotten, so our favourites from the current moment, as brilliant as they are, aren't like to stand the test of time. But for those who do archive and protect and study the speculative literature of our generation, what's going to stand out? The magic systems? The particular interplay of social themes and fantastic elements and what it says about what we are and aren't interrogating at a given moment? Maybe people of the future will admire the pretty covers?

The Fire Opal Mechanism, the second Tor.com Publishing standalone in Fran Wilde's Gemworld, has all of these features; while it would be meaningless and unfair to speculate on any specific book's longevity, the text's own treatment of the retention and transmission of information leaves plenty to chew over that's relevant to our own world as well. Set centuries after The Jewel and Her Lapidary, in a different part of the world, The Fire Opal Mechanism once again opens immediately before an invasion: this time, it's the university at which librarian Ania works which is being threatened by The Pressers, a political force which intends to democratise knowledge by destroying the elite universities in which books have to date been hoarded (of which the Far Reaches is the last). The Pressers have developed a mysterious technology which allows them to repurpose books into "Universal Compendiums of Knowledge", texts which constantly update themselves as they acquire new books. For obvious reasons not everyone is on board with the destruction of the world's unique and individual texts in order to create a single source of centralised information: books "are made to grow old, to grow, occasionally, wrong," as Ania's mentor tells us early.

Into Ania's desperate and futile hiding of some of the university's most valuable and interesting books comes Jorit, a thief who is seeking to steal and turn in some of the books hidden in the library for money to escape the Far Reaches - as she's done several times previously. Unfortunately for Jorit, she's quickly running out of places to escape to and after receiving some bad advice from a university student who turns out to be working for the Pressers, her plans quickly start to go sideways. Jorit and Ania end up trapped in the University as it's being blown up around them when a last method of escape presents itself: a clock mechanism powered by a long-forgotten gem, whose magic can send the pair back in time to try and resolve events with the Pressers before they begin. Events do intersect with the first book, but Ania and Jorit's story still stands on its own as an alternate entry point into this world.

The threat of the Pressers, and of the mechanism they use to print their "Universal Compendiums" - a mechanism which can literally pull ink from the pages of books and render them worthless - is truly terrifying, all the more so because it's a radical ideology which preys on genuine sympathetic desire. The use of the point of view of Xachar Oubliant, the student working for the Pressers, is used sparingly but to great effect, demonstrating how easy it was for this invading authoritarian force to manipulate the desire for knowledge and the frustration at the expense of university for ordinary people in the Six Kingdoms in order to make their case. At the same time, the printing press imagery - of a machine devouring unique books as its users blow up an ancient building around it - makes it viscerally apparent that this is not a sympathetic force, despite the complexity of the wider issue at play. Wilde makes the question of "who owns knowledge" into a compelling driving force with no easy answers while still making the Pressers and their machine compellingly villainous, and it's an impressive line to walk.

In The Jewel and her Lapidary, the valley of the gems and its everyday magical working is initially encountered through a travel guide written much later (though before Ania and Jorit's time), presenting a contrast between the desperation and immediacy of Lin and Sima's struggle and the lens of its impact on the far future, where the gems themselves have been forgotten. Through its time travel mechanic The Fire Opal Mechanism revisits that concept, almost demonstrating it the other way around: what is important in the past doesn't always link the way we'd expect to what's important in our own time. These scenes pack a ton of character- and worldbuilding and flesh out Ania and Jorit impressively in the time available, and their evolving relationship to each other and resolve to address the threat to their own time is fascinating to watch, though necessarily it all happens fairly fast.

Because the Gemworld is so dense and multilayered, spanning not just the contemporary Six Kingdoms but its historical states and the transmission of knowledge and the lens through which the present views the past, this is a book that demands careful attention, and it's the plot itself which - time travel shenanigans aside - gets a bit short-changed in the "how much is it even possible to fit into this length of book". There's nothing at all wrong with that, but it's important to note that what happens in this book is very much a vehicle for showcasing that worldbuilding and the characters' emotional responses to their own world, and those expecting a more action-packed "time heist" are probably going to be disappointed (plenty of other media has you covered on that front). The Gemworld also feels very indifferent to the actual "system" of its gem magic, except in the ways that they intersect with the themes of the books themselves; in another author's hands, there could no doubt be doorstop trilogies written about owning and using gems and managing the risks associated with their powers (go read with Jade City if that's a thing you want), but the focus is instead on how gems work in the fabric of human civilisation, even in an age where they've been all but forgotten.

The Fire Opal Mechanism is an excellent, thought provoking read, which delivers impressively on complex themes and worldbuilding while still offering a satisfying "underdog vs. unambiguously negative societal forces" plot. The Jewel and her Lapidary was one of my favourite stories of its length in the year it came out and if anything this story is a step up. I hope this isn't the last we see of the Gemworld and its complex, evolving history - regardless of how the future treats it, this is a series that deserves to be high up in your memory, at least for next year's awards.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Worldbuilding that works in time, space and subjectivity!

Penalties: -1 So much worldbuilding excellence it almost makes a time heist plot look boring...

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

OSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Wilde, Fran. The Fire Opal Mechanism [Tor.com Publishing, 2019].