The Promise of the Child | Tom Toner | 2015, Pb 2016 | Gollancz | 544p | Review copy | Buy the Book
Thousands of years have passed since mankind spread among the stars and during that time almost everything has changed and life itself has become, in many cases, something we might not recognise. There are some things about society, though, that can never change. There are rulers, even emperors, with their legions of followers, just as there are others who want to overturn social order through violence. The loss of an entire planet and every living thing on it might well be worth the cost to some. Rumours spread across the Galaxy, or the Amaranthine Firmament, that there is a conspiracy to kill the Emperor, that there are beings who walk the planets spreading disturbances and upset. Everything changed 12,000 years ago when humans left Earth and now something just as monumental for the future of humanity is about to happen again.
The Promise of the Child, just like the universe it portrays, is populated by a host of remarkable, complex, varied creatures, many of whom have ancestors who once walked the Earth as men and women. The central figure Lycaste is one such creature, famed for his beauty, living an idle life in a beautiful house beside the sea, living naked – clothes are no longer needed when a colour-changing skin reveals all one needs to know about another soul – and served by the descendants of birds. It’s all so gorgeous and even decadent until a crime takes place and Lycaste is banished from his Eden, embarking on a great pilgrimage to discover the truth.
Not every human has changed. There are a few individuals who have lived for many thousands of years. They still remember Earth, they keep their old names. They are the elite of this Firmament, its rulers and princes. But after so many years a haven planet is needed. It’s there that these people must go to end their lives after immortality has driven them mad.There is a strong sense that the state of affairs cannot last, that society will alter. One among the immortals causes a great deal of interest and concern – Aaron the Longlife, who has lived the longest of them all. He has a plan. He is following his destiny. Everyone watches, worried for their future.
The Promise of the Child is an extraordinary book in many ways. At the beginning I found it extremely challenging and very hard to get in to. It seemed as if nothing was described but was instead left to be ‘felt’ by the reader, bit by bit. The planets, their inhabitants, their history and their beliefs are only revealed through the stories of the people we meet. Lots of characters flit through the pages, the past and present alternate seamlessly on occasions. It’s a little confusing and bewildering. But perseverance most definitely brings reward – and I speak here as someone who can be very easily put off. I persevered because of the beauty of Tom Toner’s prose. It is gorgeous. The ideas are breathtaking. And as the picture grew of the environments, the different forms and types of people, and the shape of the society, I became mesmerised by it. Lycaste did at times challenge my interest in him but by this stage of the book I was more than happy to be enchanted by the host of wonders I was being presented with, not to mention the building intrigue.
There are some fascinating characters here, most especially Aaron and the others who have lived for ever. We become involved in the conflicts that have divided these new species of humans for centuries if not longer. We slowly learn how the different species relate to one another. By the second half of the book everything begins to fall into place and it is a much more accessible read. The revelations come one after another culminating in the greatest of them all and it was one of those moments in a book that I won’t forget. If I could have bought the author a drink I would have.
I love gobsmacking moments in science fiction, moments that make me sit up with a jolt and see everything around me with fresh and curious eyes. Wonder is vital. There are times when The Promise of the Child is truly wondrous. Without doubt, it is innovative, complex, ambitious and original, throwing down the gauntlet to the reader. I’m so pleased I accepted the challenge.