A Calculus of Angels by J. Gregory Keyes
Cover art by Terese Neilsen
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In Newton's Cannon, J Gregory Keyes gave us an alternate world where Sir Isaac Newton's researches in alchemy didn't prove a dead end, but instead led to discoveries that completely revolutionized science and technologies. By using the philosopher's mercury to manipulate the various ferments that form atoms into substances, natural philosophers effectively started the Industrial Revolution a century early on a basis that was pretty much magic using the language of science. But humans being humans, these technologies were as quickly turned to war as to the betterment of the human condition. The war between England and France re-ignited, and as it began to turn against France, the aging King Louis XIV turned to increasingly desperate measures to gain the victory against le rosbifs.
As A Calculus of Angels begins, two years have passed since the Sun King ordered an asteroid brought down on London, and Europe is in chaos. We see it first through the eyes of Tsar Peter the Great, infuriated that his son Alexei has aligned with the reactionary forces who would abandon St. Petersburg, his Window to the West, and return the seat of Russian power to the Kremlin in Moscow, a fortress and city Peter hates because of his childhood memories of disorders he had to survive. And all the time a mysterious entity hangs over his head, an entity he perceives as a guardian spirit, but which his son views as a pagan ifrit, an offense to all good Orthodox Christians. Taken in conjunction with the final scene of Newton's Cannon, it can be taken as a very likely sign that this entity is almost certainly the self-same being that the Persian elixir bound to the late King Louis XIV -- and that it is not exactly friendly to humanity, however it may seek to cozen human monarchs into believing its flatteries.
The next scene takes us to the Americas, where the Choctaw medicine man Red Shoes is coming to Philadelphia, where he hopes to attend a council meeting. But at the town gate he meets with hostility, and the only way to save himself from getting killed by an English sword is to release the shadowchild he holds prisoned in his lungs. This entity blunts the blow just enough that he feels it as the thump of a club rather than a cleaving strike, but it leaves him without his shadowchild, a parting that he finds actively painful.
As I'm reading this scene, I think immediately of Red Prophet, the second volume of Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series. In both series, we have an alternate world in which familiar figures and events of history co-exist with large-scale magic that is acknowledged by the society at large. (Yes, the alchemical magics of the Age of Unreason series is couched in the terms of science, but the processes it describes are as fundamentally different from the chemistry and physics of the Primary World as the hexes and beseechings of Alvin Maker's world). And in each of them, when Native Americans appear on-camera, and particularly when they become point-of-view characters and we become witness to their inner lives, they have a parallel system of magic which they conceptualize in a way consistent with their own cultures.
Writing about Native American characters in a fantasy version of Colonial America is an enterprise rife with pitfalls, particularly since the history of English and American letters is filled with so many treatments that are stereotypical and have become viewed as offensive to the present sensibility -- and some of which were considered offensive at the times they were published. And that's just in mimetic fiction, which strives to vary from the Primary World only in the specific characters and events portrayed. When you add magic, you've got even more potential pitfalls, because trying to portray how the native nationalities of the Americas would conceptualize the magical forces of your imagined world in a way consistent with their culture means delving into their beliefs about the supernatural -- and thus the very likely possibility of treading upon religious sensibilities that are already quite tender because of past histories of persecution as demonic and of forcible conversions to Christianity. And that's when one is dealing with the problem of honestly offended individuals, and not those who are looking for reasons to take offense in order to make themselves feel more powerful.
The character of Red Shoes appears, at least to my reading, to have been written with sympathy and respect. He has agency and interests independent of the European colonist characters, and when he comments that the Choctaw are on the Choctaw side, it's a reminder of the diplomatic adage that nations have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, only permanent interests on the world stage. And when he does agree to accompany the colonial mission to Europe to investigate the disturbances, he does so for Choctaw purposes that happen to coincide with the colonists' purposes, not to serve them, although in doing so he may aid their purposes.
Only after that scene do we finally meet once again the surviving major characters of Newton's Cannon. Adrienne, who once had to struggle to acquire every crumb of mathematical learning she might gain in the face of a disapproving society which viewed scientific interests inappropriate for women, now knows a frightening amount, and knows that what she has learned and done make her hunted in a France gone mad. Three kings (the Duke of Orleans, the Duke of Maine and the King of Spain) claim the French crown, and their ragged armies criss-cross the blast-shattered country to secure it for their royal masters, not caring that in the process they may be destroying the very things they seek to secure. Amidst this chaos, poor Adrienne struggles to survive with her young son (whose father was apparently the Sun King) when even the barest necessities of sustenance are often hard to come by. Yet all the time she is seeing hints and glimpses that things are far more complex than the mechanistic interpretations of alchemy would have, that alongside the material world there is another world, unseen by ordinary humans, and occupied by eldritch entities of uncertain powers, beings once revered as angels and feared as devils by early humans.
In Prague Sir Isaac Newton earns his keep by promising new alchemical defenses against the Turk for the Holy Roman Emperor, who has been driven out of Vienna. However he leaves the real work of keeping the Emperor happy to his apprentice, Ben Franklin, while he works out a new theory to account for the growing evidence that the aether upon which alchemy operates is not a shapeless void, but a parallel world occupied by beings who have been disturbed by humanity's activities. All the time, the armies of Emperor Peter the Great of Russia are running wild across Europe, taking advantage of the chaos and power vacuum that has resulted from the asteroid strike (repeatedly called a comet, probably because it would resemble one as its outer surface vaporized and incandesced during its passage through the atmosphere, but the description in Newton's Cannon is pretty clearly a solid bolide from the Main Asteroid Belt, not a ball of ice from the Kuiper Belt).
When the colonial mission arrives in the English Channel, they are astonished and then horrified to be unable to locate the mouth of the Thames River, in spite of knowing they are at the correct point (apparently alchemy has solved the problem of longitude, which in the Primary World would not be solved for several more decades by John Harrison, whose naval chronometer enabled sailors to carry a reference time from a known location with them throughout the world and compare it to observed local solar noon, thus knowing how far they were from the source of their reference time). With some investigation they realize that the channel of the Thames has been obliterated by an outflow of mud and debris from the ruined land beyond. There is nothing to do but trek inward.
There they find madness, people who have abandoned all fragments of civilization in favor of the trappings of savagery. It's particularly ironic to see them through the eyes of Red Shoes, who recognizes in their fetishes of bone and feather bits and fragments of his own and other Native nationalities' cultures, and isn't sure whether to scorn them or pity them for their attempts to be what they perceive as wild savages in a state of nature.
But he doesn't have much time for philosophical pondering, for the entire company is in danger. The neo-savages who once were English crofters are also cannibals, and intend to kill and eat their captives in a ritual dedicated to the mysterious entities that float among them, entities he as a medicine man recognizes, although by a different name than Crecy teaches Adrienne or Newton has drawn from the ancient Hebrew writings he sends Ben into the Prauge ghetto to find. In the course of becoming a medicine man Red Shoes had to learn how to deal with them, and thus he knows that they are the weakest of the creatures of the other world, and at once dangerous to the point that he nearly lost his sanity in the process. Here again we have a cosmology reminiscent of the works of H. P. Lovecraft, where the Other is so incommensurate with humanity that attempting to apprehend its nature can unhinge one's reason.
Red Shoes also knows that desperate measures are called for. He has subsisted without his shadowchild since that desperate confrontation at the gates of Philadelphia, but if they are to escape this trap, he must create a new one for himself, although it will involve great peril as he leaves his body to traverse the spirit realms and deal with an entity which presents itself as a powerful and beneficent god but in fact may well be more akin to a devil.
And speaking of devils, it certainly is looking more and more like the entity that attends Tsar Peter has a strong diabolical aspect. Certainly it has no hesitation about engaging in deception, and in fact positively delights in offering ways for the tsar to outwit his enemies and further his own schemes. Or are they really his own any more?
All of them are steadily drawn together for the final battle over Venice. However, there are more menacing hints, that at least one party among the strange "angels" of the aether may well intend the extermination of all humanity and are perfectly happy to use humans as tools and dupes to accomplish that end. At least some of the aethereal beings seem to be opposed to this pogrom, but from their actions it is not entirely clear that their interests and those of humanity really coincide.
However, the climactic battle at the end of this volume is actually the halfway point in the overall series, which still has two more volumes to come. And now that one of its principal characters has been killed off in a most horrific way -- not in an act of noble self-sacrifice to attain a greater goal, but in the simple fog of war, by a mechanical soldier that may not even have wit enough to realize whom it his slain -- we the readers are given notice that no character is necessarily safe. Nor will they be able to rely upon the great genius of the age to pull another rabbit out of the hat and save them with some grand bit of alchemical devising.
Review posted January 1, 2013.
Buy A Calculus of Angels (The Age of Unreason, Book 2) from Amazon.com