(Gollancz, hardback, £18.99, 453 pages, ISBN 0-575-07387-X; trade
paperback, £10.99, 452 pages; published 23 September 2004.)
One man's comic-book 'superpowers' are another's 'magic', are they
not? If you think about it, there's not really that much 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.
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
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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