The city of Rasenna is divided, in more than one sense of the word. Geographically speaking, the city is split in two by the river Irenicon, which was blasted straight through the middle of the ancient city using Wave technology, a major feat of engineering by the Concordian Empire to subdue its main rival.
Maybe more importantly, though, the people of Rasenna are divided into factions. Competing families on each side of the river continually launch deadly raids and vendettas against each other. Bandieratori fight on the streets and roofs for dominance. Sofia, heir of the old Scaligeri ruling family and soon-to-be Contessa, is powerless to stop the waves of violence that weaken the already-divided city.
Then everything changes: Giovanni, an engineer of the same Concordian Empire that originally caused the Wave, arrives in Rasenna to build a bridge across the Irenicon. Concord once again wants to expand its reach, and Rasenna is in its way…
Aidan Harte’s debut novel Irenicon shines when it comes to world-building, which is all about putting surprising and, dare I say it, unique fantasy twists on Italian history. The author throws out one major hint right from the start in a faux-Biblical quote from the “Book of Barabbas”: when Herod heard of the new-born King of the Jews, give or take fourteen centuries before the start of the story, he had all children in Bethlehem killed, including Jesus Christ.
The author then slowly dribbles information to the reader, both through casual hints in the story and through regular excerpts from a fictional history of the Guild, a pseudo-religious organization founded by scientist/engineer Girolamo Bernoulli that gradually supplanted the influence of what, in our world, turned into the Catholic Church. The end result is a lively, intriguing setting: an Italy that never was.
I could go on for another few paragraphs about all the little things that are so interesting in this twist on Italian history. If you’re not very familiar with the period (I wasn’t) Google some of the proper names to see how Harte built a 14th Century Italy that’s at once recognizable and radically different, including several real historical characters and events. (On the other hand, it’s more than possible to enjoy and understand this novel without any knowledge of these, so don’t sweat it if Irenicon looks good to you but history isn’t your thing.)
The main problem with Irenicon is that this intricate alt-historical world-building is by far the best aspect of the novel. In terms of plot and character development, it’s a mixed bag at best. There were more than a few moments I felt a distinct lack of interest in where the story was going, to the point where I seriously considered adding this one to the did-not-finish shelf.
Of the two main characters, Sofia is the more interesting one: a young woman destined to be the ruler of her city, but forced to bide her time until she reaches her majority. The second one, the Concordian engineer Giovanni who is tasked with building a bridge in Rasenna, is, in a word, bland. (By the end of the novel it’s clear that he’ll be much more interesting later in the story, but that doesn’t help much while reading this first volume.)
The novel follows other characters in Rasenna, but few if any ever feel like more than sketches. Many of them seem to be there just to represent the various factions and portray the divisions within the city. Combine that with the fact that the vast majority of them are men with Italian-sounding names, and it occasionally gets tricky to keep track of who is who, let alone maintain any interest in their actions.
Pacing and plot development are strangely uneven, to the point of feeling haphazard, right from the start. The novel kicks off with one of its many high-octane action scenes: one of the two Concordian students in Rasenna has ventured out of his hosting faction’s turf in search of adventure. Contessa-to-be Sofia (who else?) must recover and protect him. Later on, the scene feels almost pointless: it mostly seems to be there so the novel can start with an exciting rooftop chase and a battle between the “bandieratori,” or banner-fighters.
The author’s prose is, for the most part, perfectly fine—especially for a debut author. The one notable exception to this is, unfortunately, the dialogue. Harte has the odd tendency to have his characters engage in unlikely banter and witty repartee at the most inappropriate moments, which pulled me out of the story more than once. Some of the characters’ conversations are also oddly stilted, glossing over significant developments so quickly that they almost feel like shorthand versions of what they could have been.
A final note: Irenicon falls prey to its own strength—world-building—when, every few chapters, the style switches abruptly to short excerpts from the (fictional) “History of the Etrurian Peninsula.” As much as I loved learning about this setting and its history, these sections simply suck any kind of pace out of the novel. To make matters worse, each of these mini-chapters include several footnotes, so you end up having to skip back and forth inside the (interrupting) history chapters to read the (interrupting) footnotes before getting back to the actual story. Fortunately, the final third of the novel abandons these history chapters, allowing the resolution of the plot to play out more smoothly.
Irenicon is a classic example of a flawed debut novel: great concept, uneven execution. Aidan Harte has sculpted a unique fantasy version of an interesting period in Italian history. (Pun intended: the author is, in fact, also a sculptor.) Unfortunately, it takes more than great world-building to make a great novel. I’m curious about how this story will develop in the next two volumes of the Wave trilogy, but probably not curious enough to actually read them.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on April 3rd, 2014.