Friday, 06 May 2011
Robinson L reviews the second book in Catherine Fisher's Oracle Prophecies trilogy
The Archon (American title: The Sphere of Secrets) is the second book in the YA fantasy series Catherine Fisher began with The Oracle. Again, I'm using the American cover because I like it better.
It seems Fisher recognizes the truth behind the old cliché “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” As The Archon opens, young Alexos has been installed as the eponymous religious leader, but in terms of power, the status quo has largely reasserted itself. Hermia and General Argelin still effectively rule the country, which is still blighted by drought.
Argelin, shrewd strategist that he is, has promoted Seth, provided Alexos with a bountiful supply of pets and toys and baubles, and provided Obleck with a bountiful supply of wines and spirits. This keeps them all too busy or distracted to plot further against himself or Hermia.
But when a petitioner pays tribute of a shiny sphere to the Oracle, Mirany discovers this Sphere of Secrets is actually a map to the fabled Well of Lost Songs. Alexos decides to go on a quest for the Well, taking Obleck and Seth with him.
Mirany stays behind with Argelin, Hermia, and the rest of the Nine. However, even before the trio set out, political machinations have set in motion which could swallow up all their lives, and much more.
Reading The Archon was much like reading The Oracle, except that now I've taken Fisher's measure, she no longer surprises me; I know what to expect from her.
Fisher tries to give her characters added depth by keeping the viewpoint character (and the reader) guessing about the true nature of the people around them. She did something similar—with moderately more success, to my mind—in Incarceron.
My problem with the characters in The Oracle and The Archon is that they never feel alive and three-dimensional to me. Please refrain at this point from skipping to the comments section and drafting a response beginning “My dear sir, are you aware ...,” explaining how this sense of characters as real people is merely illusion. I know all that, but it is a necessary illusion for creating truly powerful and engaging characters.
The characters in On the Jellicoe Road or The Woman in White or even Schroedinger's Ball feel real to me in a way those in Fisher's works generally fail to do. I'm at a loss to explain the phenomenon, which I also experience when reading the works of Llyod Alexander, for instance. Possibly, as our esteemed editor suggests, I have no soul.
Since I'm unable to connect with the characters on any meaningful level, reading the Archon was a lackluster experience for me. It doesn't help that this time around, our heroes' journey through the desert is epic in terms of both length and tedium.
That said, the book is perfectly readable, the plot interesting, and the story flows quite well—bar a few unfortunate scenes in the desert. The characters, though flat, are all right, and I do appreciate the way Fisher plays around with the the supporting cast and her readers' perceptions of them.
Rhetia, in particular, stands out in this regard. In The Oracle, she was the self-centered-jealous-antagonist-turned-unlikely-ally. With The Archon, Fisher could easily have kept Rhetia in the role of Mirany's ally—instead, she keeps true to the antagonistic as well as the cooperative side of Rhetia's character by having her pursue her own agenda over Mirany's objections.
Fisher challenges conventions in other ways, as well. Most strikingly for me was a scene where a servant stumbles upon Mirany eavesdropping on Hermia and Argelin. Mirany knows the servant will rat her out sooner or later, so instead of retreating or trying to bribe the servant as most protagonists would in her shoes, she marches into Hermia and Argelin's room as if that were her intention all along.
I'm of two minds about the climax. On the one hand, Fisher evokes one of my least favorite narrative tropes—without straying too far into spoiler territory, we'll leave it at a supporting character sacrifices their life to save a main character. On the other hand, it's probably the most exciting climax of Fisher's I've read so far. The final chapter of the book is downright explosive, and while the story nominally ends, it leaves many questions unresolved for book three, The Scarab.
The climax was for me, hands down the most engaging part of the book, and I should add that I found it exciting in its own right, not merely in comparison to the rest of the story. Although I suspect The Scarab will be more of the same, I admit the ending leaves my interest piqued to learn what comes next.
In summation, The Archon is a little weaker than The Oracle, but otherwise much the same. Anyone who's already read the former would be justified in assuming their reaction to the latter (positive, negative or neural) will be similar, and should proceed accordingly. Anyone who hasn't read The Oracle might as well start there, and see whether it's worth their while to continue to The Archon.