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by James Lovegrove

(Gollancz, hardback, £18.99, 453 pages, ISBN 0-575-07387-X; trade paperback, £10.99, 452 pages; published 23 September 2004.)

Review by Stuart Carter

One man's comic-book 'superpowers' are another's 'magic', are they not? If you think about it, there's not really that much cover scandifference between the two: neither exist in the real world, both give their holders amazing abilities and both allow for some pretty impressive battles between the forces of good and evil. The main difference is usually that magical confrontations take place in some entirely mythical land between be-robed septuagenarians, whilst super-powered clashes happen in the supposedly here and now between spandex-wearing exhibitionists.

Worldstorm mixes the two genres, giving superpowers to ordinary folk in a marginally fantastical setting. 'Marginally' because aside from the geography you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish it from 19th-century earth; there's no obvious 'magic' such as wizards, dragons or orcs, or any of the usual fantasy paraphernalia. What we do have are four Inclinations, each named after an element: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Upon reaching puberty almost everyone expresses Inclination-based superpowers: Air might be some form of Psi ability, Fire is most commonly pyrokinesis, Water might be healing, and Earth strength or toughness. A tiny minority, called (rather cruelly) Extraordinarys fail to manifest any inclination at all and are just like you or I.

Another difference from our world comes in the form of the eponymous Worldstorm, a truly Herculean storm that meanders across the world wreaking havoc and devastation wherever it visits.

We follow the fortunes of three apparently unconnected individuals. First is Gregory, the shamefully Earth-inclined youngest son of a rich Fire-inclined family sent away from home to live and learn with 'his own kind'. One is given the distinct impression that the arrogant Fire-inclined are almost inherently middle class, whilst the horny-handed Earth-inclined are the salt-of-the-earth working class. Gregory's story, following a tragic tale of class antagonisms between the Inclincations, is probably the most immediately interesting of the three story strands.

The second strand follows an Air-inclined but now-disgraced elderly academic, Elder Ayn and his secretary, young Khollo. Elder Ayn is convinced he has found a way to finally remove the blight of the Worldstorm, and is on a mission to try and carry out his plan. We don't know if he's mad, deluded or a genius, although the latter seems to grow even more unlikely as we read on. One thing we do know is that Elder Ayn is a previsionary, a man with knowledge of his future. He and we, and Khollo, know from the very start exactly where and when an unseen assailant will kill him in the near future.

Third is a girl from the islands of Li*issua, an Extraordinary who has suffered from more than her fair share of tragedy. She has no idea that her life will be anything other than ordinary. However, as you might expect, all of these individuals are connected, or will be connected, over the course of these 450 pages.

Lovegrove's use of a triple viewpoint to tell the story works exceptionally well. I can't think of many other books where I saw such a structure used so subtly and with such forethought, on both a large and small scale. It's almost worth reading for this alone, particularly given our (ever-growing) awareness of certain characters' unreliability as narrators (whether deliberately or due to their age ... ). The misunderstandings between the Inclinations in Gregory's story are also well portrayed, illustrating how misapprehension can arise from the most trivially stupid and petty things, and can so easily get out of control.

I was struck by the fact that Worldstorm would make a terrific film, but unfortunately, despite its intelligence, it makes for a slightly less enthralling novel. James Lovegrove writes extremely competently, and I appreciated what he was trying to do -- with a fair amount of success -- here. He doesn't have Richard Morgan's firework flair for action scenes or Banks' exuberant, ironic style, but he can tell a tale well enough, and when the action flares up, or when the characters are all finally united and the book's course is set, then Worldstorm is equally enjoyable on both an intellectual and emotional level. There are moments of real, carefully-crafted horror here, all the more awful for their mundane nature and basis in reality. And there are similar moments of beauty, thought, speculation and ambiguity. But these moments shine in what is, at times, a distracting excess of story. There are pages and pages of unnecessary details and minor events that we don't need to know about, that move the story on, if at all, only marginally.

Which is why I say there's such a terrific film inside this book, because it would be punchier and more to the point, whereas as a novel it ends up strolling quietly about rather than leaping tall buildings in single bounds as it should. I seem to remember having the same criticism of the last James Lovegrove novel I read, The Foreigners; it simply didn't need to be as long as it was. Who knows, perhaps it's me--perhaps I just need to read his shorter works ...

Once Worldstorm does get going it's a well-above-average book, one that will surprise you with cleverness where you least expect it and which doesn't pretend to offer easy answers with neat solutions. Be patient with it, it's the antithesis of so many fantasy quests: a quiet, frail, philosophical tour de force, not like those other big, noisy and pushy novels, always forcing their point of view upon you. But it's a shame that you do need to be quite so patient.

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