BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Michael R. Fletcher offers a dark, gritty fantasy that makes interesting but poorly-executed use of psychological allegory.
PROS: A refreshing take on the genre and an original magic system.
CONS: Fletcher uses inelegant, gimmicky allegory and weak characterization. The book generally comes across as shallow and lacks the intended emotional impact.
BOTTOM LINE: There’s a good book in there waiting to be developed, but seeing that potential requires a charitable reading.
Michael R. Fletcher’s Beyond Redemption takes place in a gritty, Hobbesian fantasy world where a person’s magical ability is inversely proportional to his or her sanity. Irrespective of any character’s sanity, though, the world is presented as a reflection of its inhabitant’s beliefs. Nearly every character in the book repeatedly tells the reader that “belief defines reality.” However, this isn’t meant to be some kind of statement about subjective experience being determined by the individual’s attitude. In the world of Manifest Delusions (the title of the planned series), belief literally shapes reality.
The folks with the shakiest grip on reality are able to change the world to suit their will in various ways. (The collective beliefs of the sane seem to have some effect on reality, as well, but it’s not clear to what extent.) Fletcher presents a diverse and well-developed set of psychiatric conditions, each of which corresponds to a specific supernatural ability. Examples of afflicted classes include Mehrere, or schizophrenics, who actually present as multiple persons; Therianthropes, who believe they are possessed by animal spirits and can therefore shapeshift; and Gefahrgeist, power-hungry sociopaths who seem to be the most dangerous of the bunch.
The narrative style conforms to traditional epic fantasy norms. It presents a set of characters with conflicting trajectories and sets them on a collision course with one another. The reader knows the climax of the book will involve some kind of coalescence of plot threads but has to guess at exactly how that will play out.
The story proper begins when a trio of wandering criminals (Stehlen the Kleptic—compulsive thief—mass murderer and only major female character, Wichtig the Gefahrgeist swordsman-loser, and Bedekt the aging warrior/professional thief) discover that Selbsthass, a nearby city-state, has been grooming a boy named Morgen for ascension to godhood. They plan to kidnap Morgen. Meanwhile, Konig, the political-religious leader of Selbsthass and powerful Gefahgeist, is losing his grip on reality and urgently needs the planned ascension to go well in order to remain in power. Towards the middle of the book Fletcher introduces another major player to the mix.
Conflict appears at every level of the book. In addition to the conflict between the above factions, significant conflict arises within each of them. And as the psychological theme suggests, each major character plays host to internal conflict. Fletcher literalizes this internal conflict in the character of Konig, whose insecurities anthropomorphize into physical manifestations of himself. He names the most important of these “Doppels” Trepidation, Abandonment, and Acceptance.
This book ticks off a lot of boxes in the plus column. It feels fresh. The magic system is dangerous and original, if a little gimmicky. Fletcher presents us with a compelling concept that for the most part keeps the reader engaged.
Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The story comes across as little more than a vehicle for Fletcher’s thought experiment. He takes a single idea (delusion as magic system), adds a few characters and a simple story, and runs with it, leaving the reader with 500 pages of unconvincing pseudo-philosophical ruminations on the notion that belief defines reality. The explorations of human psychology and idealist ontology ultimately come across as inelegant, heavy-handed and a bit juvenile.
Tolkien famously disliked allegory in fiction. He regarded analyzing allegory as reductionist and thought that allegory tends to undermine the intrinsic value of story. But even readers with a positive view of allegory are right to demand that allegory be tastefully executed.
Fletcher does not employ allegory tastefully in Beyond Redemption. He beats his reader in the face with the ideas he explores by telling the reader what to think and how to feel. When he writes about insanity translating to power and power corroding sanity, the reader cannot help but think of the truism that “power corrupts.” Fletcher tells instead of shows, resulting in a shallower and less emotional book than could have been written.
A similar problem with the book: characterization, which is mostly flat and unconvincing. Each character possesses one or two trademark mannerisms or sayings, and these comprise the “voice” of the character. None of the characters feel three-dimensional. They’re cardboard cutouts, gimmicks given a role to play in the unfolding story. Given that Beyond Redemption tells a character-driven story, the poor characterization is a fatal shortcoming.
The character Wichtig serves as an example of both inelegant use of allegory and poor characterization.
Wichtig uses others as means to becoming “The Greatest Swordsman in the World.” In pursuit of the title he employs rhetoric as much as fancy swordplay; his character serves as a manifest example of the theme that belief determines experience. As much as Fletcher emphasizes his theme as an objective feature of reality, it’s tough to not also read it as vulgar reminder of a pop-psychological truism.
Moreover, Fletcher repeatedly labels Wichtig as “self-centered” but fails to show him as particularly self-centered compared to every other character in the book. It’s like Fletcher wanted Wichtig to be his token self-absorbed character but lacked the ability to demonstrate that characteristic.
Beyond Redemption does a number of things right and parts of it hold the reader’s interest. Unfortunately, it suffers from a lack of subtlety and relies too heavily on adherence to a single story mechanic. There’s a good book in there waiting to be developed, but seeing that potential requires a charitable reading.