Chris Roberson thrusts readers into a fantastic world, both familiar and original in its sense of wonder. Very often throughout the story, he hits the reader across the face with scenes eliciting a feeling of, "Wow, look what he did here! No, wait, don’t miss this either!" I found myself thinking this throughout most of the book, enjoying each tidbit of SFnal goodness Roberson put into the story.
The novel starts very much in the world in which we live, as cosmonaut Akilina "Leena" Chirikov is preparing to blast off from Earth in order to spend ten days in orbit. She manages to explore more than she ever dreamed when she encounters a strange ball of light and is transported from her experimental rocket ship in 1964 into a strange and fantastic world. Leena comes from a time of great human hope and discovery, when we were first exploring the stars. When her ship crashes into a body of water, Leena assumes she has landed on Earth. However, the jaguar men who capture her quickly prove otherwise.
Leena is soon rescued by a dashing man with sword in hand, and his friend/traveling companion, an exiled prince. If the early portion of the novel doesn’t hearken back to the old pulps, then perhaps the name of Leena’s rescuer might - Hieronymous ‘Hero" Bonaventure. So may Hero’s companion, for Balan is not only an exiled prince, he is the exiled prince of the Jaguar men, the Sinaa. These two characters are only the first of many over-the-top and fantastic characters Leena will encounter as she travels across the expansive super continent of the titular Paragaea in a quest to find a way back to her home of Mother Russia. That’s the brief (and completely unfair) summation of the story.
Where to start with the superlatives in this novel? I suppose the characters, from Leena, to all the characters she meets on her journey, all to stand out and become realized individuals through Roberson’s adept hands. While Hero and Sinaa initially seem like clichéd characters, Roberson takes great care to make them singular individuals. The human characters (a barbarian woman who may be the last of her race, cowboys who ride dinosaurs), metaman races (birdmen, lizardmen), and monsters (giant ants, living metal trees), they come across on their journey provide many unique flavors in the pulpy stew of Paragaea.
Just when you think it is safe to follow the protagonists along this fantasy landscape, Roberson throws an android Benu into the mix. Benu was created by the ancient, almost mythical race of Atlans. These wizards/scientists; exemplify the Clarke adage, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." This, added to the many suggestions throughout the story, give a deeper science fictional feel to the backdrop of an otherwise fantasy-esque world, where everything on the continent of Paragaea can be explained more by science than magic.
As Roberson himself points out, his influences range across the map of speculative fiction. Nearly every page is chock full of nods to authors and genre ‘landmarks’ - from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, to Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time, to DC Comics’ Superman to Edgar Rice Burroughs to the lost continent of Atlantis. This would be all well and good in and on its own merits, thankfully, though, Roberson balances his love and passion for such a rich genre with his apt storytelling abilities. A lesser writer could easily be seen as self-indulgent, but Roberson is a sharp and clever enough writer to flesh out the story fully into something unique and wondrous, completely his own, yet true to the heart and soul of the SF genre.
Not only is the story richly packed with genre ‘Easter Eggs,’ but each word seems absolutely necessary to the story. No words are wasted and the story has an epic feel to it. A great deal of story is packed within the nearly 400 pages of this fine novel, more than many of his peers’ books at double the length. While the novel is a complete and cohesive story, it also has a feel of smaller adventures building to the grander adventure as a whole - almost a sense of gestalt storytelling.
While Roberson definitely echoes many of his genre predecessors, the sense of lost/forgotten technologies coupled with the blurred line of technology and magic also reminded me of a couple of recent novels, Tobias Buckell’s Crystal Rain and Keith Brooke’s Genetopia. Roberson manages to pay homage to his literary predecessors while maintaining a strong sense of modern sensibility and keeping pace (and often outpacing) his contemporaries.
I find myself writing this quite a bit in my reviews lately, but it is as true with Roberson’s Paragaea - I want to read more about this strange, fascinating, and slightly recognizable world. Much of his fiction is linked and part of a cohesive universe, not unlike Moorcock’s Multiverse. This is good news indeed, because I would love to hitch a ride on a return trip to Paragaea.
© 2006 Rob H. Bedford
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