REVIEW SUMMARY: An entertaining piece of Fantastic Victoriana in terms of content, mood and style.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A 19th century bookish priest and a crippled hunchback together are unexpectedly transported to an alien world that soon becomes oddly familiar.
PROS: A vivid and interesting premise and an enthusiastic audacity of telling it in period style and trappings.
CONS: Secondary characters are often flat, the devotion to its conventions sometimes works against it.
BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining, bizarre tale that remains true to its Victorian conventions and style, sometimes to a fault.
Aiden Fleischer is a 19th century priest who has wound up in his profession almost by accident as much as by design. When he is united with Clarissa Stark, a deformed hunchback possessing a strong mind and a boundless capacity despite her limitations, her inspiration and a cruel change in fortune leads the pair to leave the confines of England for the South Pacific in a missionary capacity.
Little does the pair know that the journey to the South Pacific island of Koluwai is only the beginning of their travels. Little does either of them suspect that they will soon travel much further, to an alien world. Their very presence there will influence the impressionable inhabitants, and both will have to deal with the consequences of that influence, and those who would upset the balance not only on the planet Ptallaya, but back on Earth, too…
A Red Sun Also Rises is the newest book from Mark Hodder, best known for his Victorian Steampunk trilogy starting with The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. Here, though, we have something in its own way more complex than those works. In A Red Sun Also Rises, Mark Hodder sets out to write a piece of Fantastic Victoriana, to write a book that is entirely in keeping within the conventions of fantasy and science fiction novels of the period.
The novel rises, and falls on the execution of that premise. The novel is written in an authentic and immersive 19th century style and conventions. The foreword of the novel, a letter from Hodder to the reader, assures us that the text of the novel is adapted from a journal kept by the narrator. Readers of H. Rider Haggard’s She or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (or viewers of the movie John Carter) are familiar with this very common trope of Victorian and Edwardian fiction. The novel continues with those stylistic conventions, straight through to an ending very keeping in line with those two works. A Red Sun Also Rises authentically conjures the illusion that you are reading a novel based on a journal from a 19th century priest, written with his authentic voice and viewpoint.
The novel works best and fulfills this premise when engaging the author’s fecund imagination. The planet Ptallya is vividely described and evoked. From its strange astronomy, to its even more bizarre ecology and inhabitants, the world feels very much like Hodder’s take on a Barsoom-like alienness, dialed up a notch or two. The mimicry of the Yatsill leads to a soon radically transformed landscape for Clarissa and Aiden to inhabit, a landscape that, in turn, does not remain static and placid for long. And even then, the invention does not stop there with the appearance of the ostensible antagonists, the Blood Gods. Again and again, Hodder pulls unusual and strange things on Ptallya to confront his readers and characters.
The throughline of these encounters and oddities is a deep exploration of the psychology of the main character, Aiden. The story of A Red Sun Also Rises is not only a Sword and Planet tale, but is also a study of Aiden as a character and questions of his psychology and nature. Aiden’s self analysis and his fears and exploration of his very nature are real and abiding questions that fill in the interstices of the novel.
Where the novel does not live up to expectations, in my opinion, revolve around matters of characterization and pacing. This is especially true looking beyond the protagonists. The minor characters beyond Aiden and Clarissa are often chess pieces at best, and ciphers at work. It does feel in many cases that many of the characters outside the pair function as mirrors, reflections or components for the psychological study I mention above to play out against. They do not always, and in some cases, not often or ever, take on real lives of their own.
Too, the pacing of the novel, authentic to a Victorian novel, feels offputting at places. Hodder pushes events in the novel a little too hard, a little too fast for the underlying narrative. The often breakneck pacing, both in action sequences and just the flow of events kept me as a reader going forward and through the story. On the other hand, it seemed as if Hodder didn’t trust his story and characters enough to allow me as a reader to linger on anything long enough before throwing a new change-up pitch into the mix. This did keep the novel from ever becoming boring or stale, at the expense of making a lot of the twists and turns losing a bit of their impact, since yet another reversal was almost always waiting in the wings.
Overall, I did enjoy the novel, and was willing to forgive its weaknesses for the sheer strength of what Hodder has attempted and achieved. With few changes, the novel could be sent through a time machine, and with little difficulty, I think, get published in turn of the century London. But I think that a fair number of readers of his earlier work, or anyone looking for authentic sword and planet novel, will enjoy it today, as well.