The Armies of Memory, John Barnes

Tor, 2006, 429 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30330-2

Mmm. Crow. Delicious.

Reviewers make mistake. It’s part of the so-called job description. Most often, reviewers (indeed, readers) screw up because of a lack of information. Say, when they criticize a book’s ending without knowing that another volume is on the way. Readers wondering about my bias toward single volumes should realize that it’s only one way of lessening my chances of screwing up.

But accidents still slip through, and my disappointed review of John Barnes’ Earth Made of Glass was one such accident. It wasn’t before reading The Merchants of Souls that I realized my mistake and vowed to do better. This reevaluation is further confirmed by The Armies of Memory, a fourth volume that does exactly what fourth volumes should do: Deliver a decent story, show the evolution of the characters and upset the series’ status quo.

The star of the story is still Giraut Leones. Officially, he has become a wildly popular artist. Privately, he’s still a covert operative for an agency designed to keep the peace in the known human universe. Giraud, now 50, has matured considerably since his introduction as a young adult in A Million Open Doors. His artistic notoriety is unsurpassed, and his covert job responsibilities now include overseeing a team of operatives.

Meanwhile, the imagined universe of the series has become lived-in: the AI uprising in the previous volume has had a number of social consequences (Giraut likes to belittle his servant AIs; the government is making an effort to take people out of the VR box) and new forces are emerging. Giraud even has the dubious privilege of seeing events of his own life turning into popular mythology, as the teachings of a man he knew are fuelling a growing religion. Worse yet are the repeated assassination attempts he is deliberately courting, as a way to flush out the opposing forces rising up against the government he’s protecting.

But occasional shootouts with crazed assassins are about to lose their interest when Giraud realizes another party out there is trying to reach him: Someone sent by a sliver of humanity that lives outside known space. Apparently, they’ve seen something out there, and they need help. What is this threat… and what will Giraud do to reach an agreement between all parties?

The problem with series fiction is usually that it gets stuck in a pattern. In an effort to provide “more of the same” to the readers of the series, characters become unchangeable, plots are recycled and nothing ever changes. But not here: The biggest strength of The Armies of Memory is not only to show how much the protagonist and setting of the series have changed since the first volume, but to genuinely upset the dynamics of the series, pushing some earlier assumptions to their logical end, twisting things so that villains espouse laudable motivations and readers must face new layers of complexity. It’s not as much showing the readers that everything they know is wrong: it’s a process of peeling apart layers of information, even when we thought that all the elements had been revealed. I’d love to tell you more, but this book is good enough to be read unspoiled, especially if you’re already familiar with the series. A warning, though: Barnes always includes a bit of horror in his stories, and this volume is no exception.

Barnes’ writing has seldom been better, and his description of Giraud is layered with meaning: Giraud’s been with Barnes since 1991, and this evolution is showing in how the character has been tempered from his early origins. As Barnes gets older himself, Giraut gets better, subtler and funnier. The gadgets of the Thousand Cultures universe surrounding him are explained but also weathered: the once-miraculous springers are now commonplace, and the once-vivid AI threats starts receding in the background once more.

What’s unfortunate is that the book does end on a bit of an abrupt note. Fortunately, I have learned my lesson and checked my facts: a fifth volume in the series is forthcoming. It remains to be seen how many extra twists and turns Barnes can cram into his established universe. He has written good and bad books, but the sequence in which The Armies of Memory is already taking place as his signature piece. It’s already more than a loose string of sequels: It’s a living, breathing, evolving epic, once that leverages to potential of separate books, exploits SF tools as they should be and delivers decent entertainment on top of everything else.

Mmm, crow. Delicious.

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