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Edenborn

by Nick Sagan

(Bantam Press, £12.99, 307 pages, hardback, published 7 September 2004.)

Review by John Toon

In a couple of weeks' time, when the expeditionary party cover scancomes looking for me and finds only a smoking pair of shoes and the hastily scribbled note "Damn you Sagan, you talented b-", I imagine there'll be some speculation as to exactly what's happened to me. Hopefully this review should give them some sort of a hint.

My thoughts as I turned the last page of Nick Sagan's debut Idlewild, as I recall, were along the lines of "What an excellent book!" A bit more emphatic, perhaps, but along those lines. As I finished reading Edenborn my hindbrain produced the exact same phrase, and d'you know, I think it had a point. I generally prefer standalone novels to sequels -- they reassure me that an author has more ideas where that first one came from -- but I'm all in favour of sequels that expand in different directions to their predecessors, that tread new ground, and Edenborn is such a sequel.

I suppose it helps that the novel simply can't rely on the same tricks as its forebear. A key part of the appeal of Idlewild was that, just when you'd got the measure of the situation, the metaphorical camera would pull back and you'd suddenly find yourself reading a story on a much larger scale. Edenborn opens with the survivors of that first volume, now rather older, working to repopulate the Earth in the wake of a plague that completely wiped out humanity. There just isn't anywhere further back for the camera to go; so instead Sagan focuses on the other areas in which he's previously proven himself -- character and style.

Character -- full marks. Now, when I say "working to repopulate the Earth", I don't mean what some of you might think I mean -- the plague-immune post-humans created by Gedaechtnis are sterile, so the human race has to be revived in tanks. Halloween, the hero of Idlewild, has gone into retreat in North America, and no one quite knows where the schizophrenic Fantasia has gone. In Europe and North Africa, the remaining four raise vat-grown children, but ideological differences have split them into two camps. The European kids are post-humans, like their parents, engineered with immunity to the Black Ep plague, but the Africans are humans as nature intended, which means they have to stuff themselves full of antibiotics every day to stave off the plague they carry.

We're shown the adult side of the story through Pandora, who acts as diplomat between the two groups, but Sagan opts to show us the groups themselves from the perspective of two of the kids. Haji, the African viewpoint character, is tremendously noble and wise for a fifteen-year-old; Penny, by contrast, is remarkably childish. Both are absolutely convincing, however. Penny in particular has such a complete -- and such a wrong -- mental picture of her world that it's quite some time before we realise how things genuinely stand with her. There's also Deuce, who's something of a wild card (so to speak). On the interaction between these characters, the story is built.

A word on the story. It does ultimately just boil down to How We Tried To Get Halloween To Come Out Of Retirement -- obviously there's more to it than that, but that would seem to be the one-phrase summary. It takes 100 pages for Hal to even appear, which you might think would slow things down somewhat. And yet at no point during the novel does the pace let up one whit, and never does the narrative drag. And Sagan makes it look so easy -- now that's style. As the novel rolls on into its final chapters, it delivers a number of powerful emotional punches that really put the icing on the cake.

There's just one issue I would take with Edenborn, and it concerns the prologue. It's well written, and it's entertaining in a morbid sort of way, with its "How much pain are you in?" chart, but I don't see that it directly relates to the main body of the novel in any way. It seems to just be a supernumerary bit of plot exposition that someone -- Sagan or the editor -- was reluctant to cut. Perhaps it bears on the forthcoming third volume of the series, in which case I'd have expected to see it at the start of the third volume. In any event, it's a little puzzling.

Overall, though, another excellent character-driven work of literature from an author with a great deal of promise.

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