REVIEW SUMMARY: A contemporary pulp adventure that injects some fun back into the genre.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Retro-style adventure story in which cosmonaut Leena Chirikov is transported to Paragaea and must search for a way home.
PROS: Fast-paced and action-packed; wondrous setting; likable characters; fun!
CONS: Slight pacing issues at times. Characters sometimes acted questionably.
BOTTOM LINE: True to its promise, if you like old-school pulp adventure, you’ll like Paragaea.
In a time when science fiction seems to be taking itself way too seriously, along comes a contemporary pulp adventure that injects some fun back into the genre.
Chris Roberson’s Paragaea: A Planetary Romance is an homage to the science fiction stories of yesteryear; specifically, as the book jacket conveniently points out, the off-planet adventure stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett.
The story follows the plight of Leena Chirikov, a tough Soviet cosmonaut who, in 1964, encounters a space doorway to the faraway planet of Paragaea. Like many of Burroughs’ novels, the low-tech planet is awash in wonders both amazing and deadly. Leena soon meets a pair of adventurers: Hieronymous Boneventure, displaced from the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and Balam, a dethroned jaguar man prince and native of Paragaea. Together the trio travels the wondrous landscape of Paragaea looking for a way – via legend and lore – to get Leena home. During their quest they meet friends (like ancient android Benu, the mysterious Spatha Sekundus), foes and situations that force each of them to deal with their own past.
As promised by its subtitle, Paragaea reads like an old-school planetary adventure story; it is told with a linear narrative that essentially consists of a string of action sequences packed closely together. There be swashbuckling adventures here! (And air ships! We like air ships!) Anyone needing a steady adrenaline fix will easily find pleasure within its pages. The adventure-to-adventure structure of the story partly gives the book an episodic feel with each mini-adventure directing the band of travelers to the next exploration. For the most part, this made the story zip along at high speed (another contribution to the adrenaline rush). But there were some times when that pacing worked against the story. For example, when the trio of adventurers arrives at the Temple of Benu, they fight rat-creatures, a giant scorpion and clockwork men – all within a few scant pages. These supposedly fearsome foes are overcome so quickly that they seem more like pesky nuisances instead of the source of the worthwhile mini-adventures that sequence could have been.
The book does well with world building and characterizations. Paragaea is populated with a healthy dose of marvels like air ships, creatures and customs. There are several species of metamen, beings that are half man and half animal. Balam (one part jaguar) is determined to reclaim his throne and re-establish communications with his daughter, who has essentially been brainwashed by the religious Black Sun Genesis group. While Hieronymous says he is happy with a fist full of adventure, we briefly learn that he has a dark spot in his past. Meanwhile, Leena, who remains determined despite one otherworldly obstacle after another being thrown between her and her return to Earth, remains dedicated to Mother Russia. (With Leena, Roberson also does an admirable job showing how she gradually overcomes language barriers.) If I had to complain about the characters, it would be that they sometimes slipped into shoot-first-ask-questions-later mode when a simple conversation may have sufficed.
But the strong point of Paragaea is the adventure hook; and not just any adventure hook but a retro-style one. Paragaea is enjoyable for the same reason that Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was – nostalgia. This ultimately gives the book a sheer-entertainment flavor that makes it charming.
Chris Roberson has created the Paragaea website for the book where you can read the first three chapters. Do so, and you’ll see what I mean. You will also find the prequel novel Set the Seas on Fire that gives some back story on Hieronymous (Hero) Bonaventure, who incidentally is part of Roberson’s rapidly-building literary universe. Hieronymous’ descendant Roxanne Bonaventure is the protagonist of Roberson’s excellent book Here, There & Everywhere.
Science fiction trivia fans take note: As Roberson explains in the Author’s Notes section of Paragaea, the book is stuffed with multiple genre references. My Geek-GuardTM was down while I was reading this, so I missed most of them I’m sure, but Roberson welcomes and challenges readers to find all the juicy references.