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Empire of Unreason by J. Gregory Keyes

Cover art by Terese Nielsen

Published by Del Ray Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

At the end of A Calculus of Angels, Sir Isaac Newton was killed in battle. It wasn't the sort of heroic death that's foreseen well in advance, but rather the random result of the fog of war, in which he ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time and is killed by an alchemical automaton that has no appreciation of his identity or ability. As a result, not only are our heroes deprived of his talents, so that they can no longer hope he'll pull off some solution to get them out of jams, but also the popping of the "bubble of invulnerability" around such a major character serves us the readers with the warning that no character is sacrosanct, that anyone can die in this strange and terrible new world in which humans aren't the only combatants.

As this installation in the Age of Unreason opens, over a decade has passed since King Louis XIV of France brought a meteor crashing down upon London and wreaked havoc upon all the world in Newton's Cannon. That event brought the incipient alchemical Industrial Revolution crashing down and threw the world into a new and more terrible dark age, in which civilization is coming apart at the seams and our heroes often spend as much time and energy shoring up little islands of civilization against the madness of a terrified humanity..

In Charles Town, in the American colonies that are now without a mother country thanks to the bolide that destroyed London and laid waste to most of Europe, Benjamin Franklin is trying to develop new alchemical weapons to counter the terrible fleet of Tsar Peter of Russia. Although he knows that the Tsar's ships fly by the power of the mysterious entities that Newton termed malakim from the ancient Hebrew, Franklin does not trust them and wishes to have no truck with them. Instead, he is determined to manipulate the various aethers and ferments directly, to find ways to counteract the affinity of gravity and to unbind the atoms of air to create fire weapons.

However, he has once again attracted the attention of one of those human quislings who ally themselves with the world of the Unseen, much as he did as a boy in Newton's Cannon. This strange man speaks in cryptic words and phrases, by turns warning and threatening, and when Franklin refuses to yield, draws a sword and delivers him a nasty wound.

Meanwhile Adriennne, once the lover of King Louis XIV, is using the strange abilities of her new hand to devise even more alchemical machines. Unlike Franklin, who prefers honest human craftsmanship, she is confident of her ability to control the entities she calls djinni, after the Arabic. When we first see her, she is using them to power an aircraft that has taken her and Mme de Crecy six leagues (roughly eighteen miles) into the sky and are keeping them supplied with breathable air. Although they chatter about the possibility of walking on the Moon and gazing earthward, they have other, more pressing concerns.

Specifically the entity she has come to call a Death, from its resemblance to the popular image of the Grim Reaper. She fights it off, but at a cost -- she passes out. And when she comes to, she finds that she cannot simultaneously hold in mind both the knowledge of the origins of this entity and the means by which she can slay it. There's an almost Heisenbergian exclusion at work here, and she must choose. Deciding that it's better to know what is behind these entities and figure out at need how to dispatch the next one, she sees a vision of the son who was kidnapped from her ten years ago, in that disastrous battle in Venice.

As she returns to earth, we learn that she is operating out of St. Petersburg, out of the court of the absent Tsar Peter. There she has earned her keep by building toys for him and teaching his students, but she now has reason that she has an enemy at court. Even if this is not her ultimate enemy, she needs to find out this individual's identity so she can determine her next step.

Back in America, the Choctaw medicine man Red Shoes is trying to find allies in a battle that is growing stranger with every turn of events. His shadowchildren have brought him news of a terrible enemy rising in the West, but he cannot determine where in that vast unknown region the threat lies.

And Franklin's situation in Charles Town has just been complicated by the arrival of the Stuart pretender to the throne, now being hailed as King James in the absence of any Hannoverian claimant. Franklin finds himself deeply conflicted -- while part of him feels an emotional resonance at the sight of a king, another part dislikes the ease with which his fellows have abandoned their experiment in self-government to hand their lives over to a king once more. A dislike which leads to direct confrontation with this new king and the revelation of the undersea ships he has brought with him, ships he claims to be honest English workmanship, but which Franklin is certain are of Russian origin.

Worse, Franklin learns from Euler, who was raised under the tutelage of the malakim, that the manipulation of humanity goes far deeper than anyone else has imagined. Every time humanity has begun to grope toward the principles of science, the effects of their activities has echoed into the realm of the malakim and irritated them. Although at least one faction wants to end this irritation once and for all by exterminating humanity, another sees such an action as a grave wrong and has instead tried to limit the damage human science causes by leading humanity astray and then rendering their wonders useless, causing a collapse into superstition. And when someone comes too near to discovering this manipulation, he is eliminated -- meaning that Newton's death in the battle of Venice was no mere chance of war, but a deliberate assassination.

Thus the dance of maneuver among the various human factions takes on a certain desperate and frightening aspect. Even as everyone is keeping focused on petty political issues such as the proper governance of the Americas and the status of the Old Pretender, the malakim are busily working in the background to humanity's despite. Only a few key people -- Adrienne, Franklin, Red Shoes -- see things clearly enough to know what the real enemy is, and both Adrienne and Franklin are constrained by having to deal with various authorities who provide them with the wherewithal in which to create the various devices by which they hope to communicate with and combat the malakim. Red Shoes has greater freedom as a result of not being dependent upon physical devisings, but at the same time he is taking a greater existential risk in his methods, which involve capturing various eldritch entities within his own mind and controlling them, even reforging them into tools for his own purposes. If he should lose control, he could be destroyed and transformed into a nightmarish monster.

As I'm reading this novel, one thing I notice about it is how it is almost entirely middle. Newton's Cannon could be read as a self-contained novel, although it was clear that there would be more adventures afterward. Even A Calculus of Angels could be read on its own merits, although it would more enjoyable if one had already read the first. But this novel seems entirely to be a journey toward the fourth and final volume, which makes me wonder whether it was originally intended that the two be a single volume but the author discovered in the process that the tale was longer than he'd expected and the final volume had to be split in two. This might well explain some of the "saggy middle syndrome" problems that show up in this volume, as well as the gap between the first two volumes in the series and the final two.

Review posted January 17, 2015.

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