Last week I was given Aidan Harte’s novel Irenicon (to be published in May 2012) to read, and share my impressions with the blogosphere. Opening a book that is not yet on the market makes one approach the writing with a sense of both awe and trepidation – what will you find? Is a brilliant new author being introduced to the world? After consuming this 600-page leviathan in less than two days, I can confidently say that I think the answer is yes.
Irenicon is set in a world very similar to our own; the setting is unique because it is not an otherworld, but rather our own that took a different course of development in history. We are taken to a fantastical version of pre-unification Italy, divided into the northern kingdom of Concord and the weaker southern province of Rasenna, the former having flourished into a ruthless political giant fed by a gruesome energy, the latter a warrior culture torn apart internally by its own factions, or family Towers.
Centuries ago, the Concordian engineer Bernoulli created a man-made river, the Irenicon, which flows uphill through Rasenna. Water, a conscious force in the book, turned on mankind against this unnatural abomination and punished them with the Wave; a flood that destroyed cities and unleashed the buio, an aquatic race of mysterious origins that drags humans to a watery death.
Giovanni, a Concordian engineer, is commissioned to build a bridge over the Irenicon. On enemy territory, he meets the future contessa of Rasenna, Sofia. She is a warrior, and has seen her future inheritance torn apart by factions. As Rasenna refuses to unite, it exposes itself to an imminent invasion by its powerful neighbour, Concord. As Sofia struggles to find a solution, she finds herself falling for Giovanni, who hails from the land that threatens hers.
As the bridge is constructed, it becomes evident that a vaster menace than war exists, one that threatens both Concord and Rasenna; Bernoulli violated Nature when he created the Irenicon, manipulating and corrupting a fundamental, universal essence that should never have been tampered with. What did he discover about Water that granted him such power over it? And what damage did he cause when he harnessed it?
Harte makes his readers question what constitutes the nature of an element, and whether humankind has the right to apply all the knowledge it obtains. What is ultimately more important; preserving an essence in its natural state, or ameliorating it to suit the needs of a conscious human race? Or are there many forms of consciousness in the universe?
What immediately draws the reader in is the sheer atmosphere of the world in which these events unfold; it is gritty, carnival-esque, rich with the aromas of Renaissance-era Italy; blood and spice, family feuds, political intrigue and romance. However, Harte avoids a stereotypical tale of mafia culture and social change by exploring much broader and controversial themes within this glorious setting, instead of leaving it as the actual centrepiece; he touches upon the delicate war between the forces of religion and scientific progress, and the flaws that exist in both institutions. He retells the Bible as an alternative history, making one ponder the human need for both discovery and legend.
Ultimately, what this fascinating and thought-provoking novel asks is whether humans value the elements of the universe for what they are, or what they can be used for. And does this depend on whether we consider our own humanity to be a potentially exploitable commodity?
Reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s ambitious philosophical ventures and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather all in one, this is an elegant allegory, vividly told and with well-developed, memorable and complex characters, that in my opinion is destined to be a major hit.
I hope I’ve got you all on the edge of your seats, waiting to get your hands on this come 2012!