The Miocene Arrow, Sean McMullen

Tor, 2000, 416 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-87547-9

Awww, crap.

It’s like being at the premiere for the sequel to a much-beloved movie of yours. The entire cast and crew of the original film is back; the trailers looked fantastic; the premise sounds interesting; early word hasn’t been awful. And then, as the movie unfold, you realize that even if it’s not too bad -and may even be more polished than its predecessor- it’s nowhere near as much fun as the first in the series.

Welcome to Sean McMullen’s The Miocene Arrow, second volume in the Greatwinter Trilogy and sequel to the very interesting Souls in the Great Machine. Once more, we’re two thousand years into the future, following humanity as it finally breaks out of its post-apocalyptic stupor. The first volume introduced us to a strange new Australia, filled with pre-steam engine ingeniousness, human-powered computers, vast networks of communication lighthouses and an irresistible “Call” driving humans to perdition.

This sequel recognizably takes place twenty years later in the same universe. The Call is still a major factor, but the setting is very different: We suddenly find ourselves in North America, where feudal empires have become the dominant form of government. Thanks to diesel-driven engines, small airplanes are instruments of war and prestige; the aristocracy is dominated by “airlords” and hereditary guilds. The feel is different from the first volume, as McMullen quickly plunges us in palace intrigue, warring kingdoms, ill-fated love and all that good stuff.

It doesn’t take much time to tie the novel back to the first volume: Some characters return, though carrying dark hints of what happened since the first volume and what is likely to happen next. What are they doing so far from Australica? To answer the question is to reveal the meaning of the title, and spoil away part of the book.

The one thing worth noting about The Miocene Arrow is that it’s much more technically successful than its prequel. I wrote that Souls in the Great Machine often felt like a great book fighting its way out of inexperienced writing; this one feels a lot more confident, a lot more controlled. The scenes are constructed with more skill, the breaks between scenes aren’t as jarring and the characters’ motivation are generally more believable than they’d been in the prequel. Sadly, if the writing is less intrusive, the story itself isn’t overly interesting.

Oh, there’s combat, there’s action, there’s romance and there are neat inventions here and there, but nothing with the vertiginous sweep of a librarian-driven war, or the heady thrill of reading about a human-powered computer in meticulous detail. The airships are neat, the train-powered Internet has potential, but McMullen is a great deal more conventional in The Miocene Arrow, and if the result is smoother, it’s also blander.

Things also take a long time to advance, and if the last hundred pages finally attain a good rhythm (the resolution of the romance is especially satisfying, though in typically sadistic fashion, it takes several deaths and the casual demonstration of life-and-death elite power to get there), the novel feels far too long for what it’s trying to say. I wasn’t completely satisfied by the links to the first volume: In a few sentences, most of the great characters and accomplishments of Souls in the Great Machine are discarded, maybe in anticipation of a third novel or maybe not.

I concluded my review of Souls in the Great Machine by saying that a sequel was both superfluous and intriguing. At this point, I’m tempted to stick with “superfluous”; I’ll let you know of my final verdict once I’m done with Eyes of the Calculator, the third and final volume of the series.

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