Radiant State by Peter Higgins

Gollancz, 2015, 286 p.

“For centuries the Vlast had wiped histories away. The stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen created unpersons out of lives and made ruined former people the unseen, unheard haunters of their own streets.”

Higgins’s Russian inspired Wolfhound Century trilogy (I have previously reviewed the first and second instalments) is a commentary of sorts on the relatively recent history of that country. While adopting a mad whirlwind of a story arc of its own, a mix of realism and fantasy, it also has roots in Russian myth and folklore. The sentences quoted above could be a complete description of the setting if the fantasy elements were ignored but they are integral to Higgins’s vision. The three books are also unmistakably about Russia itself even if Higgins is writing about a Russia that never actually existed.

In the first part of Radiant State the Vlast Universal Vessel Proof of Concept is about to blast off for space. Literally – it is propelled by the detonation of atomic bombs beneath its pusher plate – though the actual propellant is the bombs’ casings of angel flesh pulverised to plasma by the explosions. The poor human occupants of Proof of Concept are however destined never to return to Earth. The ship, as its name suggests, is a prototype for a project to hurl the Vlast to the stars and domination of other planets.

Characters familiar from the previous two books reappear, Visarrion Lom, Maroussia Shauman, Elena Cornelius, Eligiya Kalimova. Josef Kantor – in the guise of Osip Rhizin which he had adopted in the previous book, Truth and Fear, where he saved the Vlast from defeat at the hands of its traditional foe The Archipelago – is now head of state, overseer of a vast apparatus of repression and control. “Rhizin had tens of thousands of security officers but trusted none of them because he knew what kind of thing they were and knew they must themselves be watched and kept in fear.” In the sidelines, lurking under a mountain, is the remnant of the supernatural creature Archangel, waiting to be loosed from its bonds. The main thrust of the plot, though, is Lom’s search for proof that Rhizin is Kantor and of the nature of the acts which brought him to power and keep him there.

If I found the fantastic portions overdone (I nearly always do) they are very well written, sometimes even understated, which is all to their good. In the realistic scenes Higgins is utterly convincing. His writing, while not straightforward, is almost without flaw. This is surely how it is to live in a totalitarian society. Even minor characters read as if they are real people, in all their complicity.

My only reservation is about how relatively easy it is in the end for Rhizin to be overthrown. But then again Lom has what is in effect supernatural help. Notwithstanding that, it is refreshing to find Rhizin’s removal from power taking place with no violence involved.

This trilogy just got better and better as it went on – not a usual comment on the form.

At one point Higgins uses the impeccably Scottish word smirr, at which I rejoiced, but it was in the phrase “smirrs of mist.” Technically smirr isn’t actually mist, its droplets are too large. Instead it is an extremely light, but persistent, rain; lighter than drizzle, but much more penetrating.

Pedant’s corner:- “memorising layouts and procedures she already knows by heart” (if she already knows them by heart she has already memorised them. I think Higgins meant she was reinforcing her knowledge.) “More than one of them wants to see failure today” (‘more than one’ is plural, hence, want to see.) “‘And always we have always driven them out’” (has one ‘always’ too many,) a missing full stop, Cornelius’ (Cornelius’s,) sunk (sank,) “come here very morning” (every morning,) pantoufflard (pantouflard?)

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

free hit counter script