Stephen Palmer, Muezzinland (Cosmos Books, 2002)
He's been featured in Locus and reviewed favorably in Vector, InfinityPlus 2003, AuralInnovations, Matrix and the New York Review of Science Fiction. He's published other books: Memory Seed, Glass and Flowercrash. So, obviously, somebody likes the way this guy writes. I'm glad he has a lot of support out there, because I'm not joining his fan club.
Muezzinland has a fantastic premise: inspired, he says, by Princess Diana, Mr. Palmer put together a futuristic novel about two sisters with an "overbearing, terrifying, devious and vile monarch" for a mother.
The Empress of Ghana takes advantage of technology to turn her eldest daughter into a creature hardwired for a sinister purpose -- I'll get to that in a minute -- and brainwashed into total submission to anything her mother wants. Well, teenagers will be teenagers, and the girl runs away one day, seeking a mysterious land she's heard about. Her younger sister, dissatisfied with the attempts her mother is making to locate the renegade, skips town to do the job herself. Princess Nshalla and her friend Gmoulaye walk from one side of Africa to the other and then some during their quest; the Empress sends her best agents after the runaways with instructions to return the Princesses to the palace. Somehow, the agents never quite succeed, and the Empress is forced to pursue her daughters herself.
That's one level of the story, and the easiest to understand. The next level is rather more complicated. The novel is placed in 2130 Africa, in a techno-society where almost everyone is implanted with "biograins," basically computer chips linking everyone into the "aether," a vast "electromagnetic ocean" type of Internet. All the activity going on across the aether has stirred things up to create "virtual people," who the Empress believes will soon band together to create virtual gods. She wants to be in control of those gods when they form, and so she has hardwired her eldest daughter into a sort of control mechanism for a virtual god trap. This is the part that I find fascinating; it's a terrific idea. I've never seen anything quite like it. Mr. Palmer definitely has a clear vision of what a world based on those premises would be like, and has detailed it admirably in spots.
However... The major characters, potentially compelling, come across in the end as flat copies of each other with minor variations. Princess Nshalla is a proud, stubborn, selfish and arrogant princess; her friend Gmoulaye is a proud, stubborn, arrogant tribal girl. Their mother is a selfish, arrogant, powerful Empress. The only real distinction between the characters is their status. The prose is stilted and awkward form the very first page of the Prologue: "The Empress could not hide the savage glee she felt at the report she was about to hear, for something deep within her scheming mind told her that success was hers today. 'Tell me all,' she whispered."
The plot has huge holes. Nshalla knows that her mother will send agents after her. Yet, she proudly announces her name, rank, and goal to everyone she meets. The agents were given clear instructions to bring the princess back to the palace. Yet, when they appear, they all try to kill her. Even stranger, when the first agent fails to capture/kill Nshalla, he's apparently fired by the Empress and ingratiates himself with the Princess as a guide so as to retain some version of employment. He later turns on her and attempts to kill her, of course, but Nshalla manages -- somehow -- to kill him (one of her mother's best agents, remember) instead: "In three precise movements Nshalla kicked him in the groin, struck him to the ground and grabbed the dagger." Sounds like she's had training in martial arts -- that move, against someone skilled, isn't nearly as easy as it sounds -- but that would be inconsistent with the upbringing already described. The Empress wouldn't stand for her daughter doing something as violent and undignified as learning how to fight or defend herself. There are more holes, but that's enough to give the reader an idea of the more serious discrepancies in the book.
The dialogue is incredible -- and I don't mean that in a good way. About three-quarters of the way through the book, the town Princess Nshalla and her companions are in is attacked by some of the virtual gods that are already under the control of the Empress. (Why creatures presumably powerful enough to detect their targets easily would attack an entire town instead of just the girls is another question, but leave that aside for now.) As the girls cower in the beginnings of a god-created sandstorm, their companion Khadir says, "Our salvation lies in running before the storm." Climbing into the helicopter he finds for them to escape in, "Gmoulaye groaned, then said, 'I sense trouble, Nshalla. We had better depart quickly, before it is too late.'" I don't believe anyone, no matter what culture they come from, would use such formal wording in the middle of a life-threatening crisis.
One of the hardest parts of reading this book is the lack of physical description. The author goes deeply into the characters' internal motives and beliefs, and describes the areas they pass through in occasionally stupefying detail, but says very little about the outward appearances of the main characters.
I couldn't get into the book at all, and rereading it was absolutely out of the question. I browsed online and found a number of positively glowing reviews of Stephen Palmer's work, so perhaps I'm just not seeing something important.
Then again, maybe I am.
Visit Stephen Palmer's Web site. Read an interesting interview with him here and another one here. A bibliography of his writing can be found here. The entire InfinityPlus review of Muezzinland can be found here.