In early 2012, John Love made some serious waves with his debut novel Faith, a critically acclaimed space opera that was about as dark as anything I’d read in the genre. (You can read my review, one of the first I posted on this site, here.) Faith was a novel many reviewers expected to see on Best-of-2012 lists and final award ballots, but instead it disappeared without much noise at all. Whether that was due to the novel’s admittedly disturbing content, or its early January release date, or the fact that all of this happened in the early days of Night Shade Books’ well-documented collapse, no one knows.
So now it’s early 2015, and John Love’s second novel Evensong just came out in early January, almost three years to the date since Faith. I’m usually pretty aware of which books are coming out when, but this one somehow snuck by me completely. Which leads me to worry: is history about to repeat itself, and is this dark, disturbing SF novel about to disappear without a trace again?
Here’s hoping it won’t, because — while inarguably flawed — Evensong by John Love is a another dark, bizarre, gripping and ultimately satisfying novel.
It’s very different from Faith, though. John Love’s debut was space opera — unusually dark, psychologically twisted space opera, sure, but still space opera. Evensong, by contrast is more of a near-future political techno-thriller, with a squad of heavily augmented special agent fighters known as the Dead, and serial killers, and a church-like corporation (or corporation-like church) that’s hosting a UN summit about global water rights, all built around a quote from a Shakespeare sonnet.
Got that? Okay, let me start over.
It’s 2060, and Anwar Abbas is one of the Dead — a virtually invulnerable super-warrior who conducts special missions at the behest of UNEX, the new executive branch of the UN led by Laurens Rafiq. As we get started, Abbas is miffed at the new mission Rafiq just gave him: bodyguard duty for Olivia del Sarto, the Archbishop of the New Anglican Church. Bodyguard duty is below the usual level of the Dead (it typically gets assigned to what they disparagingly refer to as Meatslabs) but in this case, Rafiq is making an exception because the New Anglicans will be hosting a UN summit at their cathedral in New Brighton, and it is believed that both the summit and the Archbishop will be the target of attacks.
The New Anglican Church is a highly successful new religious organization that stands out from the pack for a few reasons: it’s opposed to fundamentalism in all its forms, for one, and it’s run more or less like a corporation, for another. Olivia, the New Anglicans’ Archbishop, is equally well known for her off the cuff, take no prisoners-style press conferences and her voracious sexual appetites. Anwar travels to England, meets with Olivia and her security staff, and begins to prepare for the summit. Anwar and Olivia also almost immediately launch themselves into a spectacularly twisted and adversarial relationship, which involves a lot of what I can only describe as “combat sex.”
Here’s what’s bizarre about Evensong: for a good chunk of the novel, I was going back and forth between a sick sort of revulsion at most of the characters and active annoyance at several of Love’s authorial decisions. I was fully prepared to dismiss the novel as a poor follow-up to Faith at best and a failure at worst. However, by the end, I was extremely impressed at what turned out to be another excellent novel. This is a book you need to stick with for the pay-off at the end. (And no, I’m not going to spoil any of it here, but I may yet end up writing a second piece about Evensong with appropriate spoiler warnings, so I can properly pick it apart.)
Part of the issue is the novel’s very slow start. The first 60 pages are essentially all setup and info dumps. It’s fascinating setup, but still, Evensong takes a while to get going.
Another issue (later resolved) is that the books feels (note: feels) wildly unbalanced in terms of gender balance. The only female character who isn’t an oversexed Archbishop is the UNEX leader’s assistant. All the members of the Dead mentioned throughout most of the novel are male, except one who left to, yes, have a baby.
Now, again, I’d like to emphasize that this initial impression will change. The UNEX leader’s assistant is actually much more than just an assistant. There are other, female members of the Dead. And, not to put to fine a point on it to avoid spoilers, let’s just say that the notes I made for this review initially included the line “I hate how this book portrays women” and that now, after finishing the novel, I’m ready to eat those words.
(Still, that impression was part of my reading experience for a good chunk of the novel. I mention it here mainly as a warning for people who may be tempted to give up. Keep reading.)
In the balance, this is a novel about people with extraordinary abilities and unusual levels of power who treat each other with less consideration than rabid animals. Like the author’s debut, it’s a book about “people who had lost, or never had, the motives of people.” Characters turn shocking insults into terms of endearment in a weirdly twisted parody of love and friendship. Another deleted note for this review: “it becomes clear x is a sociopath” — deleted because it turned out to be way short of the mark.
The book’s cover quote (by author Zachary Jernigan) name-drops both William Gibson and Richard K. Morgan. Of the two, I think it’s much closer to Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels in its bleakness, its shocking level of emotional and physical violence, and — for better or for worse — its blatant disregard for political correctness. Plus, Olivia occasionally reminded me of Morgan’s Quellchrist Falconer, who said “there are some arenas so corrupt that the only clean acts possible are nihilistic.”
I am still not sure what to make of Evensong. It’s at times both complex and simplistic, offensive and tender. It’s a novel that’s likely to generate some intense discussion and extreme opinions. I had serious issues with Evensong as I was reading it, but ended up, if not loving, at least fiercely admiring it.