The Old Tree

Review of Bid the Gods Arise by Robert Mullin

Bid the Gods Arise by Robert Mullin takes the basic materials of ancient Judeo-Christian legend and gives them life and coherence in a mythic universe.  In doing so, it avoids falling into the Evangelical stereotypes of the same source material, and it is definitely not “biblical fiction.”  The myth-creation leaves intriguing implications, and few individual novels cover as vast a scope.  The worldbuilding does not quite live up to the vast scope of the mythopoeia, and the pacing and characters seem geared toward creating a lighter, entertaining adventure.

It is practically impossible to say very much about Bid the Gods Arise without the risk of spoiling the main plot hook.  Most readers who have followed reviews of Bid the Gods Arise before picking it up were probably spoiled, since even a discussion of genre in relation to this novel can imply part of the plot hook.  Although I do not intend to reveal plot details unnecessarily, this review makes no effort to conceal the nature of the initial plot hook.  It happens early enough that spoiling it is probably not a terribly big deal, but it would be best to approach the novel without knowing the twist, so take that into consideration before reading the rest of this review.

Bid the Gods Arise does not fit neatly into any kind of classification.  Having warned about spoiling the plot hook, the fact that this fantasy epic involves interplanetary travel can be mentioned.  The first chapter builds the conceit that this a traditional high fantasy world, introducing the two leads – Aric and Maurin – and their society.  The initial fantasy setting is developed enough to create a thorough illusion.  Several countries are mentioned, as well as geography and history.  The most detail is devoted to the polytheistic religion and its priesthood, and there is an implication of a supernatural reality rooted in myth.  It seems natural that the spacefaring element is depicted in a sort of New Agey, ancient-aliens-built-the-pyramids style.  The initial contact with with a ship from another word looks like an alien abduction scene from The X-Files.  Much later, the mythic origins of the “gods” mentioned in the title bring to mind the Judeo-Christian legend of the Nephilim as antediluvian demons taking on human form.  (The comparison with the Nephilim is very subtle; I need to make it clear that Bid the Gods Arise is not set in an antediluvian Earth.)

Naturally, the non-technological people of Aric and Maurin's homeworld of Sangrine attribute supernatural forces to advanced technologies.  However, the line between supernatural and technological is never clear.  There is more than one way to travel between planets.  The title of the series that this book begins, The Wells of the Worlds, indicates the other method.  The other method of interplanetary travel evokes traditional portal fantasy, and although not demonstrated in the narrative, the premise seems very mystical and spiritual.  For that matter, the mythology mentions spacecraft in connection with supernatural beings.  Even the primary mythological anchor, the great twisted tree seen on the cover, is related to space travel.  It does not feel like fantasy overriding science, nor does it feel like science intruding upon and limiting the fantastic.  The story simply makes it seem natural that science and the supernatural have always been united.  The effect is similar to that of the 2011 move Thor (and uses similar imagery), but it feels more authentic because the relationship between magic and science does not need to be explained or even speculated about.

Still, there clearly is technology, and most of the time, technological devices are almost completely undescribed.  Part of this may be due to the characters' ignorance, but that doesn't explain the complete lack of descriptive details about how the devices and vehicles appear to function.  The text almost seems to deliberately avoid describing the flying air vehicles employed on Argoth, and about the only thing we know about a fairly common ranged energy weapon is that it is long.  Perhaps describing the technology better would have risked making the setting feel incoherent.  However, the lack of description also creates worldbuilding problems.  Why do people use medieval crossbows side-by-side with futuristic energy weapons?  Is there some limitation with the energy weapon that makes it less efficient, or less reliable?  Even if the soldiers don't understand the technology behind the energy weapons, they should be expected to understand why they don't exclusively use those energy weapons, why swords and crossbows are still useful.

As a whole, the prose is not very descriptive, although it is generally good at giving relevant details at appropriate places in the narrative, with the exception of the previously-mentioned technology.  One of my favorite moments occurs during the strong beginning section before the plot hook, describing electricity being used in a convincingly archaic way to power a torch:

Maurin muttered a ritual prayer of thanks to the god of knowledge as he ministered to a torch whose alkaline fluids had gone stale.  He poured the bitter acid into the clay cylinder, then dipped the metal wick into the mixture, and sealed the top with wax from a long tapper.  An arc of current leaped between the two upright arms of the metal statue encased in the safety of a sandglass shell, infusing the inner sanctuary with a pale blue glow. (p. 16)

That wonderfully steampunkish paragraph sets the precedent for technology in a fantasy universe.  Although it is regrettable that the same kind of descriptive magic was not done for the other technology appearing in the novel, there are other memorable moments that come into focus as the fast-moving narrative highlights them.

 
Some of the other better pieces of writing appear in Aric's sporadic flashbacks, narrated through first-person perspective and present tense. This is an unusually experimental technique for a novel that seems primarily geared toward providing an entertaining adventure. Many of the flashbacks are confusing, even in retrospect. The surreal, mystical effect of the flashbacks is welcome, helping to relieve the potential tedium of Aric being cast as yet another young man who happens to be a prophesied hero of legend with an unexplained supernatural affinity. One possible detriment to the flashbacks is that they bring the reader closer to Aric than to Maurin, and although Aric is clearly the main protagonist, Maurin's story arc is probably at least as important to the plot (though maybe not to the fate of the universe), and Maurin's perspective and relationships probably make him more sympathetic for many readers. Despite the drawbacks, the flashbacks do convey some fascinating material, including the primary depiction of the central myth. The narrative sometimes uses scenes of exposition, such as the flashback depiction of the myth, but the moments of exposition are selected and framed well enough that they never really feel like “telling” or like infodumps.

The plot structure calls very little attention to itself, which probably means that it is well done. One point where the plot does call attention to its structure is a scene that echoes the first flashback that forms the prologue. That scene would seem to be important because of its foreshadowing, but it actually plays a very small role in the plot, ending a small side-plot that was never explored very thoroughly. Bid the Gods Arise turns many tropes on their heads, and in the plot, this is manifested with a subversion of the technique of introducing one fairly mundane villain or antagonistic force, and then later introducing a far worse and more horrifying villain or antagonistic force. The mundane evil is not let off the hook by the bigger evil, and the novel deliberately makes it hard to decide which evil is worse. The end is mostly tied together well, leaving one major unresolved issue to ignite the sequel.

The concepts for the characters are interesting, and the dynamics of their relationships seem real and sympathetic. However, the novel struggles to bring out the characterization. As cousins, Aric and Maurin have a great dynamic. Aric can feel shallow, because his motivations are simple and predictable. Maurin's inner conflicts make him more interesting, and the tension between Aric and Maurin helps to alleviate the dryness of Aric's characterization. Still, most of the characters seem to have the same personality. They all have thin skin and wear their emotions on their sleeves. Maurin is dutiful while Aric is reckless, but they react almost the same in social situations. This problem is perhaps most apparent with a supporting character who grew up in a gladiatorial arena, starved and tortured and forced to kill. The narrative tries to show the ramifications of such a background, but the character comes across as angsty and troubled in more or less the same way that Aric and even Maurin are angsty and troubled. There are two other supporting characters that I disliked because they annoyed me, which of course is a personal response, but the narrative goes out of its way to mark one of those characters as special and sympathetic through the use of heavy emotionalism. That character's story arc is one of the three or four romantic subplots, but the ending of the arc frustrated me, because I disagreed with the other character's romantic decision – it seemed like he should have made a different choice based on his earlier portrayal. Perhaps the most unique and best-portrayed character is the mentor figure. Rather than a wizened old man, this mentor is an attractive, relatively young woman. Her personality is portrayed believably; she really seems like a scholar, a warrior, a woman, and a mysterious guide in matters of the arcane all at the same time.

The mentor serves as a mouthpiece for some of the novel's more explicit themes. Religion is important in the story, with a confusing interrelationship between made-up pagan gods, gods that are actually a class of supernatural beings, a Daoist-like life-force philosophy, and a representation of God as the “Source,” a title that sounds both Star Wars and Lewisian. These themes are enforced through mythic imagery, such as the evil world-tree so centrally emphasized – perhaps a dark portrayal of Yggdrasil, perhaps a nod toward the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, perhaps a subversion of the Tree of Life in connection with a race beings who fell from grace, but in dying might yet find life once again. That race is itself a subversion of a mythological and fantasy standby – the members of that race are essentially the elves of Bid the Gods Arise, beautiful, noble, proud, and ethereal – and yet they are not inherently good or even close to nature, but are cursed, doomed, and twisted. Like elves, they live in a secret forest that is set apart from the rest of the world, but their forest is not only deadly and sinister, but also less alive, less beautiful, and less real than the outside world.

The plot touches lightly on the theme of destiny versus free will, but the most emphasized theme may be the inevitability of doom. The race of cursed beings is portrayed as both chillingly evil and tragically understandable. There is a circularity of doom between the two sets of villains. The effect is deeply thought-provoking, without unnecessarily wrangling over existential questions. Despite the minor problems with setting and worldbuilding and the potentially more serious problems with characterization, Bid the Gods Arise is a worthwhile read due to its significance combined with its fast-paced, trans-world adventure plot.

Comments

  1. Hey! I love Bid the Gods Arise. Can hardly wait for its sequel. :-)

    ReplyDelete

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