Setting of A Cruel Sun

Alan Gibbons



September 06

Hmm. Had this one for over three weeks and I’ve just finished. (Sorry Michael) My wife suggested that this initial sentence would suffice, but on we go.
Chapter One. Forces of light and of darkness. Mention of a ‘Nine’ of heroes and heroines. A dark lord, a Black Tower (no, not the Liebfraumilch), a demon battle host. Any of that sound at all familiar?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all anti-fantasy. I read and re-read The Lord of the Rings many times as a child. I consider Garth Nix to be ‘the business’: Ursula LeGuin even better. There is some tremendous stuff out there in this genre, but (to misquote Groucho Marx) Setting of a Cruel Sun just isn’t it.
Funnily enough, despite some of those early clich’s, lack of imagination isn’t the root of the problem in this book. There are a complex host of different peoples and even species imagined against a backdrop scented with our own Middle East. Roughly speaking they are grouped into the Hotec-Ra, the tyrants who have ruled the land with an iron hand (not a wooden foot or a piece of string’. Cf The Goon Show circa ’59?), the Helati rebel slaves, who wish for a new era of equality and justice, and the fearsome Darkwing, a once-human, now life-hating demon lord. So, all the heroes have to do is defeat the overlords in a great battle and thwart the Darkwing’s scheme to destroy the life-giving sun and everyone can settle down to a bit of serious sunbathing with maybe a cocktail or three. Piece of cake, and (although the usual good-versus evil-for-the-fate-of-mankind fare) an okay fantasy plot.
The problem comes first that this is a sequel that really feels like one for at least fifty pages, if not more. The story opens at the end of another great battle, with the Nine just recovering from a previous victory, and feels like a strange mixture of a formal history being unfurled and glimpses of a large number of individuals with too many pasts and characteristics to possibly cram into the text. Result: a real hard slog for several chapters.
But even when I had worked out who everyone was and what their aims were, I still struggled. I think this is partly due to that uncomfortable mix mentioned above (great history versus personal events) a mix that Tolkien manages well in a much longer work that grew over decades of imagining and re-imagining but just feels rushed, messy and formulaic here. Add to this a correspondingly strange narrative style that sometimes has characters directly analysing their own motives and actions against the wider backdrop in a most unconvincing way – ‘What do I feel?’ asks one particular traitorous villain, ‘Yes, I am jealous’ There is comradeship among the enemy, whereas we Children of Ra cheat and deceive… I am without friends or confidants. In my loneliness, I envy my foe.’ ‘ and quite often brutally spells things out rather than letting us draw our own conclusions or allowing tension to mount: ‘The decision would have grave consequences. Before nightfall the next day, it would bring the swords of the Sol-ket down on his village.’
I kept asking myself during my reading if I was being too harsh, but the reality is that I failed to engage emotionally with any of the characters, I was rarely surprised by the plot and, by the end, I felt as if I was simply filling in the numbers in a hellishly large but low-level Sudoku puzzle.
As ever, just one person’s opinion. You might love it.

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