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Volume 24, Number 2, Winter, 2006

Context

By John Meaney

Pyr, 2005, $25
ISBN: 1-59102-335-1, 531 pages
Reviewed by Anders Monsen

John Meaney’s second installment in his Nulapeiron trilogy marked a very frustrating experience for this reader. At times it felt like the author had taken pages of a large and complete manuscript, ripped them into small fragments, and scattered them about for the reader to assemble and interpret. Originally published only in the UK in 1999, Prometheus/Pyr has re-released Context in the US, along with the first volume and soon the third. Thus, Context finds itself in the unenviable position of being the middle filler of a trilogy, where the protagonist and setting probably already saw most of its freshness and existence developed in the first volume (Paradox), and expects a summation in the final volume (aptly titled Resolution). Someone like myself, unfamiliar with the first installment, may initially struggle through the first few pages striving to find a pattern.

Tom Corcorigan, the novel’s protagonist, finds himself in the opening pages seeking immediate and radical medical attention after a rescue mission that went both right and wrong. Corcorigan saved the target, yet himself suffered life-threatening internal wounds. Unless the treatment is successful, his body will tear itself apart from within. Nulapeiron, the planet that forms the backdrop to the story, is an underground planet. Few people ever see the surface, and travel takes place through tunnels and waterway, along or between the many levels that form the geographic environment. To reach his treatment center, Corcorigan travels far from his own territory, where once he lived as a lord, having climbed the social ladder from servant origins. He also bears one defining and significant physical feature: accused of theft as a youth, he lost his left arm as punishment.

While undergoing treatment, Corcorigan suffers the loss of his trusted aide, Elva Strelsthorm, who he secretly loves. During a session with one of the psychic Seers upon whom the ruling classes depend to guide society, Elva commits suicide. Tom is shocked and unnerved by her action. When he learns that there may be a duplicate or twin version of Elva somewhere on the planet, he promises himself to seek out this other Elva. The rest of the novel details his journey towards this goal, a long path filled with missteps and sidetracks.

Context becomes both a voyage of discovery and self-discovery. We learn through some of Tom’s history that a few years past he had led a revolution to change the social structure of Nulaperion to reduce the existing system of slavery and bondage. He failed in this revolution, which still leaves him bitter. As a “made” lord, not through inheritance, he straddles two social spheres, and seems more comfortable among the lower classes. Tom goes undercover countless times, and re-invents himself as an artist, warrior-monk, and finally, war-tactician and deep-cover spy.

During his five year journey, Tom also encounters hints of a dark force invading his planet. Its opponents call this force many things, but one terms that sticks is “the Blight.” This blight moves through areas of the planet, slowly subsuming the populace and converting them into concentration camps that slowly devour every living being. The focus of the novel now shifts from Tom’s inner journey to uncovering the source of the Blight and how to combat this seemingly unstoppable force.

As I mentioned in my opening words on this novel, it seems at times confusing and hard to navigate the pages of John Meaney’s Context. Aside from Tom’s inner journey and the events around the Blight, the novel features a subplot of a character from 1300 years in the past. “Ro’s Story,” as this subplot is called, is a narrative well-known by Tom Corcorigan, and one he refers to and uses in his efforts against the Blight. While we enter Tom’s story midway, making his identity somewhat confusing to grasp, we witness the origins of Ro’s story, and it’s far easier to follow.

Towards the end of the novel I did grow accustomed to Meaney’s style enough to enjoy the book. However, based on the events alluded to earlier in Corcorigan’s life, I am more tempted now to pick up Paradox, the first volume of this trilogy, which deals with his growth to manhood and struggles against the social order. It’s a shame that so much time has passed before this novel reached the US, but such publishing vagaries are far from uncommon in the science fiction field.

Meaney certainly is a novelist worth watching, and he’s just one of many of the current British invasion of sf writers only now being noticed in the US. This Pyr Books edition bears a superb cover painting by renowned sf artist Jim Burns.

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