This review contains mild spoilers.
The Amaranthine Spectrum is one of those ‘trilogies’ that completely flew under my radar, The Promise of the Child being the first part of said trilogy.
The odd thing is this book (and the trilogy as a whole) seems to have received universal praise from a long list of critics, yet I never see it mentioned on various social media platforms or science fiction communities. The Promise of the Child is literally slathered with positive comments from online sites, reviewers, and fellow authors. The front cover, back cover, and the first three pages are covered with lauds.
This piqued my interest further. Why such universal praise for a series of books that nobody (from my estimation) seems to have read? So I promptly had the Spectrum shipped to me from England where all the paperback versions were finally available (sadly it appears Nightshade Books in the U.S. might not even publish the paperback version of the third book).
First off, it should be clearly stated that The Amaranthine Spectrum is not a ‘trilogy’, no more than The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy. It’s merely one very large story conveniently sliced into three volumes to save your wrists and arms from undue stress. So if you’re intent on reading the Spectrum just be aware that it’s essentially a 1400 page book, each one picking up right where the previous leaves off.
The story takes place in the 147th century (the year 14,647 AD to be exact), with an occasional flashback to the past. Earth is now known as the ‘Old World’ and is the sacred center of the Amaranthine Firmament. The Old World now feels like an agrarian backwater, where castles are grown instead of built, and technology, as we know it today, does not exist. Its residents seem to live in a near medieval society with little industry. The Amaranthine, who control nearly all technology, are immortal humans (some over 12,000 years old) whose Firmament spans eleven light-years around the Old World and is comprised of 23 Solar Satrapies. Over the centuries the human race has fractured (‘prismed’) into twelve exotic races of varying sizes, shapes, and colors. After thousands of years of strife, the powerful Amaranthine have pushed the Prism races outside the Firmament sphere into a region known as the Prism Investiture, on condition of loyalty. It’s a region of chaos, war, poverty, ignorance, and barbarity.
Some of the Prism races are allies (servants) of the Firmament, others are looking, and hoping, for the Amaranthine Firmament to fall so they can plunder its riches. ‘Amaranthine’ is derived from ‘amaranth‘ meaning ‘a flower that never fades‘, in this case, ‘an empire that never fades.’ Yet, the Firmament is rotten at its core, ruled by ancient humans who are slowly losing their minds to a form of dementia brought on by their immortality. All the while their society is being corrupted by its own decadence. The Amaranthine Firmament is, ironically, fading … and the Prism vultures are waiting to pounce.
The reader is blindly inserted into this setting primarily through the eyes of:
Lycaste Cruenta – A Melius (Prism race) living a simple life on the shores of the Mediterranean on the Old World. He knows nothing of what goes on beyond the shores of his cove, or the pages of his books … nor does he care. A fit of jealousy causes him to commit a crime and his idyllic life is turned on its ear when he’s forced to flee into the wilds of the Old World.
Sotiris Gianakos – A 12,000-year-old Amaranthine Perennial (human), originally from Cyprus, who is struggling with the recent suicide of his sister, Iro, at a Utopia (insane asylum) on the Old World. In exchange for the inexplicable possibility of bringing his sister back to life, Sotiris strikes a Faustian deal to help oust the current Emperor of the Firmament.
Eventually, the paths of these two cross and they find themselves propelled into circumstances and situations they never asked for, nor would they have ever imagined.
Underlying all of this is the mysterious Aaron the Long-Life and his search for The Soul Engine, a recently created device in the Prism Investiture that allows a soul (even the ghosts of sentient AIs) to be transferred into another body/vessel.
Tom Toner doesn’t paint a basic picture using even the broad brush I used above when starting the Amaranthine Spectrum. He offers nothing and drops you right into ancient Prague in the year 1319 and you have to figure the rest of the journey out yourself. And what a weird journey it is. I classify The Promise of the Child as ‘space opera’ because that’s the closest genre I can even attempt to wedge it into. The book has elements of many genres, including space opera, fantasy, dying Earth, magic realism, fabulism, even some steampunk … all wrapped in prose that often reads like science fiction literature.
He mixes ancient, vine-covered medieval castles on the shores of the Mediterranean with interstellar Voidships capable of traveling trillions of miles in a handful of weeks. He tosses Amaranthine bilocation (teleporting across the stars with a thought) into a bag with lumen (laser) weapons and shakes vigorously. He presents us Vaulted worlds (planets hollowed out so the populace can also live on the inside surfaces) in the same breath as the souls of sentient machines living as ghosts in ancient castles. Tethered Moons (moons tethered to their homeworld via massive chains) sit comfortably alongside warriors wearing medieval armor and brandishing swords.
It’s truly the most utterly weird (in a good way) story I’ve read in many years. Yet, fascinatingly, it works. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like it should, but it does. Toner pulled me in with such implausible world-building that I feel compelled to keep reading to find out more about the world, the characters, and how it’s all going to end.
Conveniently, and thankfully, Toner has at least inserted a glossary of people, places, and things within his Spectrum to help the lost reader decipher some of the cryptic writings that he’s put to paper. I found myself referring to it liberally and constantly while reading The Promise of the Child because both the cast and settings are vast and varied.
Oh, speaking of utterly weird … did I mention the dinosaurs? More on that when I review the next book, The Weight of the World, as there’s only brief reference to them in the first book. But it was so jarring that I bookmarked the page and highlighted the section thinking it to be important. It is … so watch for it.
Now, the main problem with The Promise of the Child, and the Spectrum as a whole, is that parts of it move at the pace of a beautiful glacier. The reward is not immediate, but one that must be earned after undertaking the chaotic journey put before the reader. Is that payoff worth it? Some readers may not have the patience for this type of storytelling, and this will be its biggest impediment for many. They may not have the patience to follow Lycaste as he goes fishing in his private cove, or fumbles his way through the Old World. Speaking for myself I believe the payoff is (and hopefully will be when I finish the Spectrum) worth it. I’ve read a lot of science fiction, some of it brilliant, some of it bad, most of it decent. The ones that truly remain with me are the ones that are memorable, unique, and leave an impression … regardless of how wildly bonkers, creative or action-packed they may be. The Promise of the Child, and so far the Spectrum as a whole, delivers on all of those qualities.
In The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner mixes far-flung space opera with magic realism and a myriad of other science fiction sub-genres to create a magnificently weird tale that leaves me with an impression of its memorable uniqueness. If you’re a fan of science fiction literature where you’re dropped into a rewardingly crafted world with almost no spoon-feeding or hand-holding, The Promise of the Child should be right in your wheelhouse.
Words © 2019-2020, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
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