Eyes of the Calculator, Sean McMullen

Tor, 2001, 589 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34512-9

There’s a good reason why I try to read volumes of a trilogy one after another: Wait more than a month between volumes and the characters fade away: It’s possible to spending more time catching up than actually enjoying the latest instalment. Due to a variety of factors (including temporary blindness), I ended up waiting seven months between the second and third tomes of Sean McMullen’s “Greatwinter Trilogy”, and the gap did nothing to improve my experience of the series.

Eyes of the Calculator begins soon after The Miocene Arrow, but returns to Australica after the extended North American trip of the second volume. The atmosphere is correspondingly closer to the first Souls in the Great Machine, although with the inclusion of a few American characters. The final instalment begins as The Call, which had enslaved humans for generations, is shut down. (Given that this was one of the lamest elements of the series, its absence is not missed.) Freed from the constraints of the Call, humanity starts spreading once more, leaving the Aviads without natural protection…

Readers of the first two volumes of the trilogy already suspect what is to follow: Romantic high adventure in a neo-medieval setting, with plenty of romantic heroism and triumphant moments. And indeed, Eyes of the Calculator more or less delivers the good. McMullen is clearly having a lot of fun here, and it’s a treat to see him get back to a familiar setting, bringing along a trio of strong female characters, a return to Rochester’s Great Library, another look at cool ideas such as the human-powered calculator and the consequences of the first two volumes.

It’s very familiar and, in fact, perhaps too familiar. The number of new ideas here falls almost to zero as McMullen continues to play along with known elements and very hastily brings everything to a conclusion of sorts. There is a sense that this is a comfort novel: a last hurrah, but not a significant step forward. Even the characters are eerily familiar, through no coincidence. McMullen takes a number of risks, most notably by making a heel out of one of the second volume’s heroes, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this isn’t all that new, especially given the originality of the first and, to a lesser extent, the second volume. Not everything works out: As in the first volume, there are a number of suspicious betrayals, and the material about the Gentheist is never as interesting as it could have been.

Thankfully, McMullen has grown as an author and so the writing in Eyes of the Calculator is noticeably smoother than in the previous volumes. Tonal shifts are less jarring; dialogue is snappier; scenes are tighter. Perhaps too tight, as it’s not uncommon to read along and suddenly have to back-track, abruptly suspicious that Something Important has just happened in a very short amount of prose. There is still an unpolished quality to McMullen’s prose that keeps his fiction from achieving its full potential. The first hundred pages of this novel, for instance, take an awful lot of time to cohere in a compelling whole. (It certainly didn’t help, to echo what was written above, that I paused for so long between the second and third novel.)

But when it does, when McMullen hits his groove, the novel truly works. Despite the nasty edge to some of McMullen’s imagined world (he never lets you forget that these are much less enlightened times, or that commoners are cannon fodder), he has a knack for unbelievably strong-willed characters, compelling adventure and triumphant moments. His characters alone, in all of their lusty vitality, are a pleasure to follow. This is high adventure in a good classical vein; too bad it has to work in fits and starts.

Overall, the Greatwinter Trilogy of which this is the conclusion has more good moments than bad, but there’s no escaping the sense that the memory of the trilogy will end up being better than the actually messy reality of its prose. It didn’t need to be so long, nor so scatter-shot: an author with a bit more structural ruthlessness could have made a classic series out of those elements; as it stands, it’ll have to settle for something akin to mere goodness. Which, mind you, is still quite respectable.

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