The Nonborn King by Julian May
I’m disappointed by The Nonborn King, but I wouldn’t say I’m surprised. It’s not like The Golden Torc ended on a note that resonated with me. How could it? All the characters who we got a careful introduction to, thanks to the deliberate pace of The Many Colored Land, were dead or written off, and May replaced them with at least thrice as many characters that we never got the time to properly know.
[Spoilers—and lots of swearing—ahead]
Still, despite things slipping towards a hard-core plot story where all that matters is war and betrayal, I had hope. We had to re-center ourselves at some point, right? Learn to love some new characters, take a moment to breathe in the humid Pliocene air and remember why we care about any of this. Right?
Instead, I closed the book last night at 2:30 in the morning (because I knew that if I didn’t just get it over with, I might never finish it), with a itemized list of things I hated about it.
The LGBTQ characters
When I read The Many Colored Land, I was thrilled that it included Felice. Sure, she wasn’t-quite-right in a way that could be dangerous, but her companions accepted her, and she definitely showed vulnerability and was, at least initially, often a sympathetic character. She started to get a little more dicey as time went on, but I figured there were lots of shitty straight people, too, so, eh.
Then Tasha entered the story in … book two? Tasha is a trans woman, a gynecologist, and a traitor to the human race. She’s the person who masterminded how to undo the human women's permanent birth-control so that the Tanu could use them as brood stock. So, she’s not great. Also, she’s also described as truly insane.
Okay, cool, now there’s an insane lesbian and an insane trans woman. This isn’t looking good.
And then Felice goes even more insane. Sure, it’s not her fault, yadda yadda, but point is, now she’s even less sane, and is so powerful she’s regularly referred to as a monster. And, well, HUGE SPOILER, when Felice finally submits to redaction and seeks to gain health and sanity, when she comes out the other side, she’s def sane … and evil.
I was so pissed. Honestly, Felice was 90% of the reason I was still reading.
About this time, I think Julian May realized what she had done (namely, make her paltry two LGBTQ characters the worst), and backpedaled by bringing in Mr. Betsy—a cross-dresser who fashions himself after a Queen Elizabeth. He’s loyal as all get out to humans, and seemingly morally unbankruptable. But I don’t know him and frankly, this hasty incorporation of a good gender-non-conforming character lacked any sort of depth. Mr. Betsy gets a few lines, and has a minor part to play in the human rebellion. Whoooo.
Okay, okay, just Mercy and Felice. But still. So at the end of The Golden Torc, Felice is driven further insane by the torture perpetrated on her by Culluket. Fine. I didn’t love that she fell in love with her rapist/torturer, but at least it was clearly painted as an insane thing. And then Elizabeth heals her mind, and she’s sane, and she’s still calling Culluket her Beloved and still craves his love.
What the ever-loving fuck.
Then there’s Mercy. After presuming Nodonn dead after the flood, she joins up forces with Aiken as his partner/queen. She only joins him for the power. Aiken, on the other hand, is in love with her, though he despises this love. This anger over his love of her makes him incredibly dangerous, and Mercy is well aware of this fact. In addition to good old fashioned intuition, she has a vision of him murdering her. Still, for some reason or another, she sticks around, and she’s only attracted to him when she’s afraid of him.
When Nodon comes back from the dead, she sneaks off to be with him. They share a moment, but then Nodonn tells Mercy that she needs to return to Aiken to be his spy, Mercy reveals her vision to her supposed beloved.
I say supposed, because Nodonn’s like, “Nah, you’re wrong,” and even though Mercy knows she’s not wrong, she’s like “You’re probably right. It’s fine. Besides, I’d gladly die (in this stupid, easily avoidable way) for you! Teeheehee.”
So we have two women who thrill at abuse, and a woman who vapidly lets her husband send her marching into death. Great. Just great.
Only the good die young
Everyone nice that we know—everyone—dies. Even the characters who are somewhat sympathetic, but definitely not good, die. So I’m left with a book full of assholes or people who I don’t know. Cool, cool.
Worse, we get a new awful character: Marc Remillard. And unlike other characters who get thrown on screen with barely an introduction, we get to know Marc Remillard. He’s … well, an asshole. He’s abusive to his kids, convinced of operant human superiority to non-operant humans and aliens (and killed a few million humans and aliens while trying to prove his point), and, now forced into exile, he spends his days trying to find a new civilization of operant aliens that he can trick into coming and rescuing him (and his followers) from earth so that he can once-and-for-all dominate an alien race.
What a nice guy.
I kept procrastinating reading, I hated this guy so much. And not in that fiery-passionate way. He’s no Joffrey. He’s just awful and boring—lawful evil, if you will. Lawful is always the most boring character trait.
Apparently book 4 of The Saga of Pliocene Exile is about the showdown between Aiken Drum and Marc Remillard. I don’t think I even want to read that. Can they both lose? Can everyone except Elizabeth (and her helpers) and the Howlers just die, please? I want book four to mostly be about ramapithecines.
In The Many Colored Land, I thought Julian May did a fantastic job of balancing in-depth character-driven sections and vivid landscape descriptions with what I would consider a narration-style of story-telling. The first two ground us in the world, the latter moves quickly and allows for a certain amount of analytical commentary.
In The Golden Torc, things started to move faster, and we spent less and less time in one setting or with one person. It was either a very quick snippet, or it was sort of a narrative.
This trend is continued to its extreme in The Nonborn King. I felt detached from the story from the beginning: Elizabeth, Amerie, Basil, etc, are all great heroes. They helped save Tanu, Firvulag, and Human alike after the flood. They organized, they planned, they got people where they needed to go through the worst of circumstances. But all of this happened between The Golden Torc and The Nonborn King. Elizabeth “I don’t want to help anyone, I just want to float away on a balloon” is a changed woman—and a hero—and we don’t get to see that transformation. We get a summary that it’s happened.
On the flip side, there’s Tony. He’s a new character that kinda liked being a silver-torc in the Tanu oligarchy and would like to escape the lowlives that captured him and removed his torc. We get to spend a few chapters with him, here and there, throughout the book. We get to see him under attack by Firvulag, or plotting an escape, or attending a feast. None of these moments actually matter in the grand scheme of things, and he comes up so infrequently that I regularly forgot who he was.
At the end of the book, he suddenly is involved in something that affects the plot. In a moment all his fluff chapters became clear: Julian May needed a character to be involved in this one thing, so she invented Tony and peppered his adventures throughout the book so that when he was involved in this critical moment, we wouldn’t go “Wait, who’s this guy?”
Except, the book is chock-full of “who’s this guy?” Most of the names that passed before my eyes were tertiary characters at best. I couldn’t tell you anything important about almost any of them, other than “Oh, he’s a Tanu knight/firvulag warrior/lowlife.”
And those descriptions cover pretty much everyone in this book.
In addition to this problem where things that aren’t important got a lot of air time while things that were important got swept under the rug, was a sudden change in writing quality.
This is a stupid example, and yet I think it proves my point perfectly:
Mercy is running through a castle with an ally, and a dog jumps out and startles them. Mercy says “Deirdre, down,” and the dog lays down. It’s her dog, you see. And, crisis averted, they keep running.
It doesn’t affect the plot; it doesn’t even affect their flight. And the moment isn't even long enough to startle us. Why include it?
Why introduce the idea that Mercy has a dog at this moment? It’s, like, the very end of the book.
There’s also the two-page-long speech where Aiken tells his troops exactly what they’re going to do—and then we watch them do it. And the four-page-long info dump within a stone’s throw of the end of the book disguised as two people who’d never met before talking about themselves and their histories.
These sorts of story-telling faux paus mixed with a bunch of characters I don’t like and a story that is focused almost exclusively on war and betrayal makes me feel like I accidentally grabbed a modern fantasy novel. Which is exactly what I've been avoiding.
Now I have to decide if The Adversary is a book I’m going to tackle or not. Blargh. I hate when things I love take a serious turn.
Cover art by Michael Whelan: