PROS: Intense, bold writing; inventive worldbuilding; excellent plotting.
CONS: Took time to warm up to the main character.
BOTTOM LINE: A very strong and ambitious debut.
Posthuman space opera is a tough act for a writer, triply so for a debut novelist. Making transhuman characters relatable to the reader is no trivial task. Not only do they often think differently, but the very environment in which they exist can be indecipherably complex for 21st century readers. It’s no wonder the number of successful posthuman novels are vanishingly few, and why few debut novelists would dare to attempt to add to that number.
And yet, here’s The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner, which adeptly delivers top-notch worldbuilding. After it begins with a strange opening in medieval Prague, it shifts to a relatively low-tech setting and introduces the hominid main character Lycaste. By first showing us the “low end” of an ultimately vast tech spectrum known as the Amaranthine Firmament, the author eases readers into his 147th century, or one of them. By the time more complex and stranger realms are shown, the reader is prepared for them. This is especially true when Lycaste eventually sets out from his home and journeys across the landscape and all of its fulminating weirdness in a manner reminiscent of Severian’s journey in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. Like Severian, Lycaste has quite the long journey ahead in a world that he is very ill-prepared to deal with. It’s a clever and interesting world, with something new always coming across the horizon, more wonders as yet unreached. I ate it up with a spoon.
On its technical merits, the novel is first rate. How does one write a posthuman story with lots going on, while making it easy to follow and palatable? The plotting is crackerjack, the various strands drawing together expertly as the story progresses. The language, too, is beautiful; well-sculpted and evocative. Although there are not a lot of technical details given about the posthuman technology, the feel of the posthuman world comes across and immerses the reader into it. The story’s structure, which contains multiple point-of-view shifts, lacks chapters yet manages to carry the reader back and forth between the various plots and characters.
The major flaw in the book was the ostensible main character, Lycaste. His exile and wanderjahr across the landscape make up the backbone of The Promise of the Child, and it’s the greater world beyond his small corner that really helps bring the novel into full focus. However, until he leaves and for some time thereafter, Lycaste just didn’t resonate with me as someone I wanted to spend time with. At the story’s beginning, he’s shallow, callow and not terribly bright. It wasn’t until he started on his journey that he started to grow as a character. I couldn’t wait for those scenes to end to get back to the many other more interesting things that were happening. Once Lycaste is exiled and we get to see him react in the world beyond his garden, he warmed up to me as a character and I finally found myself more interested in him than in the other plot lines. I began to see him as more in the mold of a Severian. But, until his exile, Lycaste’s thread was almost too much of a chore to read.
The Promise of the Child is an ambitious novel that aims high. It doesn’t always reach the firmament of the stars, but it rises high enough that I eagerly look forward to returning to that world. It helps that it sets up great promise for the next volume.