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Consorts Of Heaven
Jaine Fenn
Gollancz paperback £12.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Consorts Of Heaven begins in the dreary uplands with Kerin, a poor widow and healer of limited training, worrying about her 'sky-touched' son as a storm approaches. For a reader expecting a direct sequel to Jaine Fenn's first novel, Principles Of Angels, this is a distinctly disconcerting opening. The son, Damaru, finds an injured man in the moorlands behind their village in an area so isolated that Kerin has rarely seen someone she doesn't know before. It soon becomes clear that this stranger is from a very different world - in his first moments of consciousness he wants to "turn the lights on," to which Kerin responds with "I will open the door. Tis nearly dawn, so that should give us some light" (page 22). Yet there is barely a suggestion that this character is connected to the previous volume and this book maintains its silence for as long as possible.

It does this by having Sais - a word which means stranger - suffer memory loss. Having a protagonist with whom the reader can identify, who needs to learn both the world and his own purpose in it, is a familiar enough device, but Fenn uses it particularly well. The 'native' Kerin understands her world intimately but it would falsify her character to have her explain any of this common knowledge except that she is faced with an innocent. His presence allows us to learn from her; the structure of village life, the tenets of her religion, the nature of her son. She tells this from within her language and religion, so she becomes deeply worried at what she has to teach Sais. The idea that the stranger does not know the holy signs, nor understand what it means for Damaru to be sky-touched raises the concern that he is from the Abyss. It takes most of the book for the state of the sky-touched to be fully worked through from the original impression that it is a kind of blessed autism.

The scattering of information eventually provides the key to the world, as well as the spine of the story, for Damaru must travel with the drove of animals to market so that he can be presented to his society's most holy figure. Assuming Sais must be from the lowlands, the villagers send him off with the drove too - and Kerin with them to care for both her son and the stranger. As they travel, the world is shown to be real and the beliefs of the people to be sincere and with genuine foundation. The book holds out minimal hope that there will be a 'scientifictional' explanation of events even as it shapes the story as a journey to the city of knowledge. That SF explanation is only possible as a result of Sais' gradual recovery of self knowledge - and his origins show the world in another light. As this happens, the perversion of the religion and of the sky-touched becomes plain and Sais realises the quest he has to complete.

The climactic events are somewhat reminiscent of those in Principles Of Angels, with a sudden revelation of new layers of complexity in the world. This time, though, the purpose for running around in mazes of technology is much clearer - and the impact of the revelations on Kerin - are quite satisfying. Kerin has been built up over the course of the novel as an intelligent woman living in ignorant times and she is shown to be truly exceptional by her ability to handle the deeper reality of her world. When her response is contrasted with that of a narrow minded priest, it makes both reactions more convincing. The outcome is a book which stands ably alone - and perhaps even props up its sister. It will be interesting to see where the story goes next.
Consorts of Heaven by Jaine Fenn

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