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Paradox: Book 1 of the Nulapeiron Sequence

by Paradox: Book 1 of the Nulapeiron Sequence by John Meaney

(1st US edition: Pyr, 406 pages, hardback, $25.00, published March 2005. First published in the UK, 2000.)

Review by John Toon

cover scanDisaster befalls market stallholder's son Tom Corcorigan early in his life. Gerard d'Ovraison, a dignitary passing through his lower-level ghetto, takes a liking to his mother and carries her away; his father soon dies broken-hearted. At the same time Tom is given a data-crystal by a fugitive woman who turns out to be a Pilot, an outlawed band of space travellers. She's later shot while fleeing the militia, and Tom is left to unlock the data-crystal's secrets. He resolves to hunt d'Ovraison up through the strata of the subterranean world of Nulapeiron and make him pay for destroying the Corcorigan household, a mission in which the data-crystal will play a crucial part. But there's a catch: d'Ovraison is an Oracle, a seer of the future and a member of the ruling class, and he's already foreseen a leisurely old age and painless death for himself. Even if Tom can somehow cheat destiny, killing d'Ovraison and defying his prophecy will mean the overtoppling of a social order built on people's secure belief in the Oracles.

There's something about Paradox that puts me in mind of the Bonzo Dog Band's song "Bad Blood", as one-armed amputee Tom Corcorigan treks up through the strata of Nulapeiron in search of the no-good, two-bit Oracle who ruined his life. "I could've been a doctor, or an architect!" wails Bonzo Dog's hero when his quest is over. Tom's made a damn sight more of his life, becoming a maths whiz, a one-handed martial arts master, a Lord and the reluctant brains behind a revolution in his pursuit of d'Ovraison; and yet at the end, even though he's achieved so much, there's still the strange sense that it's all slipped away from him and he's screwed up his life in the name of revenge.

In fact, I couldn't help but feel that much of Tom's greatness was thrust upon him, and that he brought a lot of his woes on himself. His social (and literal) climbing serves a purpose, to bring him closer to d'Ovraison, and the fact that it raises him from slum nobody to court servant to Lord along the way seems entirely incidental -- particularly the transition to court servant, which occurs at Tom's trial in a way that I found highly unconvincing. "D'you know, what we really need around the demesne is a one-armed ex-criminal manservant. I sentence this young man to check in with my housekeeper, just as soon as his arm's been cut off."

On the bringing-his-woes-on-himself side of things, I found it extraordinary that he didn't protest his wrongful conviction for theft, given the harsh penalty involved. It seems like too forced a way of showing us how gosh-darned stoic our hero is. Similarly, when he rises to the rank of Lord, Tom refuses to have his arm grown back surgically and continues to keep the injury that marks him out (wrongly!) as a criminal, because he's so gosh-darned stoic. Yes, it's interesting to have a one-armed hero, and a one-armed action hero at that, but it strikes me as a little gratuitous that he should remain one-armed when some simple surgery and the return of his left hand would make it a damn sight easier for him to achieve his revenge (two-handed climbing's somewhat easier than one-handed, and the illegal data-crystal is hidden in a pendant that has to be opened with a left-handed gesture). Surely nobody's that single-minded?

While I'm dwelling on the negative, it's not clear to me what purpose the Karyn's Tale part of the book serves. I mean, it's all well and good to get some background on the Pilots, but it doesn't seem to affect the main body of the novel at all -- just provides contrasting interludes to Tom's story. It feels like a short story or a novella that's been cut up and used to bulk out the novel. Perhaps it'll become more significant in the second and/or third books in the series.

So, Paradox has its faults. But it also has some fantastic prose, packed tight with short, punchy sentences and well-described action. It has three-dimensional characters a-plenty, and complex personal dilemmas for Tom. It's intelligent in a gripping sort of way, and it doesn't infodump. There's a fair amount of advanced maths discussed in this book, and although much of it went straight over my head I didn't really mind, because the story kept pulling me along all the same. It's a story I'd be quite prepared to read more of.

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