Ancients of Days, by Paul J. McAuley

ancients-of-days-by-paul-j-mcauleyGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow and Co.
Published: 1999
Reviewer Rating: threehalfstars
Book Review by Paul S. Jenkins

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Confluence is not a planet. Though it hangs in space like a planet, it oscillates rather than rotates, so that the sun rises in its sky, then reverses and sets whence it rose. The Great River running down its length falls off the edge of the world and is recycled by gargantuan hydraulics.

In Child of the River, the novel that precedes this one and begins the Confluence trilogy, little of the artificial world is explained, though by reading McAuley’s short story “Recording Angel” one can get an idea of the strangeness of the world. By the end of Child of the River, our foundling hero Yama has left his stepfather and arrived in the city of Ys, in search of his destiny, and more urgently his bloodline, which he thinks could be that of the Builders, the race that first populated Confluence.

The opening of Ancients of Days finds Yama, his self-appointed squire Pandaras, and the intimidating female mercenary Tamora, about to participate in a battle against the Department of Indigenous Affairs, an organisation that seeks to control the city.

Yama’s adventures read like fantasy: the tricks he performs with his power to influence machines are seen as magical, not based on science or logic. Throughout Child of the River Yama remained a passionless protagonist, without any hint of a sense of humour, and for the first half of Ancients of Days the detached narrative continues; we rarely get inside Yama’s head.

McAuley’s prose is rich, with many unusual words depicting a densely imagined world. There’s a lot of description; at 320, the page-count of this Millennium edition is marginally lower than Child of the River, but here the print is much smaller. I’d guess that Ancients of Days is half as long again.

Towards the middle of the book Yama meets up with an old adversary from whom he has previously escaped, and when he returns to his home town things start hotting up. Relationships change, and the story takes on a greater depth of characterization.

As the novel reaches its final stages, we revisit the events depicted in “Recording Angel” — but from a slightly different viewpoint. By the end of the book, everything is changed, yet Yama is in the same predicament as at the end of Child of the River: he still doesn’t know who he really is; he’s still in search of his destiny. Only this time, so many options have been eliminated that the final part, the last book of Confluence, is something to look forward to.

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