The Luck of Madonna 13, by E. T. Ellison

the-luck-of-madonna-13-by-e-t-ellison coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Wynderry Press
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by Lynn Nicole Louis

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I’m somewhat bewildered at where to begin. The Luck of Madonna 13 is an impressive, sprawling book that manages to mix the best of both science fiction and fantasy. Set some 400+ years in the future, it’s impressive in scope, style and especially in the level of imagination E.T. Ellison brings to its pages. It’s sprawling in that there’s a lot going on here, more even than that which is presented in the pages of the book, as there is an accompanying website that expands and expounds on certain story elements, characters, and ‘historical’ background. This is the first book of a series too, by the way, in case such knowledge influences your reading choices.

The result of all this is not nearly as confusing as it has the potential to be, thanks to Ellison’s sure hand. A robust forward provides the ‘history’ to help pave the way. I found it worth reading before starting the book, though I’ve read other opinions that recommend reading it after. Once the story gets going, Ellison trickles it out quickly enough to keep the reader engaged, but slowly enough so that disorientation doesn’t ensue.

St. Coriander is an Iso-town, a sealed, self-contained perpetual village hidden away in the mountains of New Mexico. For hundreds of years they have maintained their isolationism and groomed their unique culture, part of which includes voluntary suicide (uplifting) at a predetermined age. Each year, the “Luckiest” sixteen year-old is selected based on a tradition established by Exeter the Wise, a legendary figure (there are lots of these in this book) who established The Rules. Through a series of tests and competitions, Glendyl Fenderwell is found to be the year’s Luckiest, the reward for which is to be sent out of St. Coriander on a Quest. She is the 250th to so be honored; no one has ever seen the previous 249 again. Resolute, she sets forth, and quickly becomes embroiled in a series of events that are much larger than she suspects, events she is nevertheless the driver of. Along the way she meets a variety of characters, from transformed former questers no longer in human form, to the world’s last wyvern, to the enigmatic Brain that holds the virtual remnants of the last of the Dunnigans. Through a combination of luck, skill, and sheer determination, she creeps slowly closer to her goal, without even really knowing what her goal is.

Exeter, the legendary wizard (by way of the advanced technology at his command), is indeed very much alive. He has been engineering events and culture behind the scenes in St. Coriander for a long, long time, and, as Glendyl sets out, it becomes apparent to him that she is no average Quester. That, coupled with the discovery of a Wildcard in St. Coriander (another sixteen year-old girl) provide the impetus to events that Exeter has been long been waiting and planning for.

Lysheem is the world’s last wyvern, a race of being genetically engineered by Clan Dunnigan, who developed the Nevergates–portals into alternate realities. Most of the world’s population, human and otherwise, has left through these gates, leaving the world depopulated, with isolated population groups and in a state of degraded technology. A series of wars over the Nevergates resulted in the destruction of all except one. The last Nevergate is a character as well, well-hidden, but highly sought after: by Lysheem so she can rejoin her kin; by Exeter so he can pursue revenge against the beings who killed his brother; by the virtual representations of the last Dunnigans so they can make sure no one finds it and follows their departed clan; by Glendyl the Quester, who (unknowingly) has been genetically encoded to be the Key that can finally activate the last Nevergate once more.

Ellison’s speculation on future pop culture is some of the most thought-out and well presented I’ve seen; the world-building here is top-notch. The sociological satire is both funny and eminently believable, as are his inventions. From the Wyverns to the Hoverbars to the licensed genomes of popular celebrities, the technology is integrated and justified, but it’s magic at the same time, magic we can believe in because of its strong roots in what permeates our culture today. Designer life forms are surely in our future, as is our manipulation of molecular structure and human cloning; these are just a few of the technologies Ellison extrapolates to convincing conclusions in his story. His style and confidence make everything even more convincing. There’s texture and depth here; this is a world that is ‘real’. I felt as though I knew it even as I found it to be a strange and wonderful place.

And yet….

Despite the cleverness, the imagination, the cool speculation, the intricate plot and interesting characters, something was missing. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I wasn’t… captivated. Enthralled. Entranced. I wasn’t emotionally engaged; the engagement came more at an intellectual/curiosity level. When the phone rang, I picked up instead of letting it go to voice mail. When I finished a chapter, I didn’t flip ahead to see how long the next one was and if I had time to read it. It didn’t drag me unresistant into the wee hours of the morning as some books are wont to do. And I’m not sure why, because all the ingredients are there.

I think this is a book that the vast majority of speculative fiction fans will appreciate and find great pleasure in, especially those fans of writers such as Gibson or Dick or Sterling. There’s a freshness here I haven’t seen in a long time, a veritable verdant field of interesting ideas wrapped around a convincing plot and imbued with realistic and realistically motivated characters.

And yet….

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