The Panorama Egg by A.E. Silas
First off, the front cover of this book lies. There are not worlds within worlds within worlds. There’s simply worlds within worlds. There’s a difference.
Secondly, what the fork did I just read? Just pitching the concept of the novel is going to be an ordeal, but let me try.
Are you at all familiar with panorama eggs? I wasn’t either. They’re hollow eggs that have scenes inside them. Out of curiosity, I hit google and was assaulted with the overly-saturated colors of easter candy.
This book starts off with two grown-ass men who collect panorama eggs discussing their hobby and sharing their finds. These panorama eggs are not confectionary, though. They’re so involved that they have a lens peep-hole that helps distort the interior of the egg to make it seem larger and more grand that it can possibly be. They sometimes have clockwork figures inside to give the impression of a living world. They’re invaluable scrimshaw.
It seemed fair to assume that the Easter-egg panorama eggs I found were simply the modern, denuded versions of something much more sophisticated.
I was wrong.
I googled and I googled and I’m really good at googling, but ‘vintage,’ ‘antique,’ or otherwise quantified searches returned nothing but really old and subsequently disgusting-looking confectionary from decades past.
So I’m on literally page two and baffled. Not exactly in a bad way, but more like “What prompted this author to re-imagine a child’s sweet as a sophisticated gentlemanly keepsake? And how did that turn into the kicking-off point of a novel?”
Curious, I kept reading.
An almost other-worldly woman—Mera Melaklos—joins them and as the night gets longer, and loopier, the protagonist—Archer—starts to get really into panorama eggs.
“An ideal panorama egg would have to be large enough to get into, yes. But you should be able to hold it in your hand. It would have to be a—a paradox.”
He went on gathering speed and confidence as words came to him.
“It would have to be so large that you could walk in it and never find the edges. So large that if you climbed the mountains, there would be more lands on the other side. So large that you could cross the sea and find strange countries. It would have to be a whole world that you could hold in your hand.”
Daffy but … okay. I was kind of expecting something like this given the title and the tagline.
This whole opening scene reads better than it’s described and it’s far more refined than you might expect. King Lear crosses the story-telling several times. Melaklos has the faint edge of a refined lady of high-society wrapped in a shroud of unpenetrable mystery. The third character in this scene—Patterson—is a retired English gentleman. He clearly knows what’s up with Melaklos and they share obvious affection. Archer leaves, then Melaklos and Patterson share an enigmatic moment, then the scene ends and I wasn’t sure what I had just witnessed, but I thought I liked it.
The next section of the book held me less captive. Archer’s miserable. He’s a lawyer on the way to becoming partner in a New York City law firm. His wife, Diane, runs off with a younger lover and swears she’s not coming home. His doctor tells him he’s not taking enough care of himself and if he doesn’t change he’ll die young.
(Aside: he’s only 30. I wish I could figure out if his being on the verge of making partner was reasonable in the 1970s because today the average age is something like 52.)
Then Mera Melaklos appears in his office and shows him a new panorama egg which, of course, is exactly what he had described that night when he was daffy: a real world inside an egg, and as he stares through the peephole he can feel himself being sucked into it.
There’s a lot of stupid little nuance here that I loved that, if I went into it all, would weigh down beyond reason what is already almost certainly going to be a heavy review. But here’s a snippet as an example.
Archer asks Mera Melaklos if she created the egg using magic.
“No. It is sorcery. Material portals are borderline cases, I admit, but I maintain that a portal made by sorcery is sorcerous.”
Why do I love that so much? I think it’s because it’s dumb and unnecessary and yet fits so well with Mera Melaklos’s character that its inclusion feels right.
Anyway, Melaklos provides Archer with a ticket out of the life he’s been wanting to leave. As you might imagine, he takes her up on that offer and stares into the egg. He’s transported to the fantasy world of Dolesar where Melaklos awaits him. She mentions something cryptic about someone messing with their arrival, then they move on.
The story-telling switches it up about this point. All of Archer’s adjusting to this new world is stuffed between two chapters. Like, months are summarized in a paragraph. I’ve been outspoken about the sins of stuffing action between chapters, but even though it was definitely jarring and confusing, I didn’t mind it so much here.
The way The Panorama Egg is told up until this point, it’s clear that we’re going to have a rather topical relationship with Archer. Sure, we’re going to watch him have some revelations about life, but we’re never going to feel like we know Archer.
Which makes me less invested in the minutiae of his emotional and physical reaction to this change in scenery. If I’m never going to know him, I don’t really care about watching him pick up a sword for the first time, let alone spend months with him while he learns how to use it properly.
This highlights a deficiency in the writing and the plotting—don’t start a book that much earlier than the point where the story actually starts—but at the same time I almost applaud Silas for taking this approach. Someone less self-aware of their deficits would have probably written a horrible montage-style chapter that would have alienated half the readers. Instead, she skipped ahead to where the shit hits the fan.
Though, in this scenario, the shit is an unknown quality and the fan is offscreen. Mera Melaklos knows what’s going on and is trying to maneuver the world in such a way that it can fight back against impending doom, but Archer (along with the audience) is kept more-or-less completely in the dark. The mystery that seems to be presented to the reader is, seriously, what is the deal with Mera Melaklos? Everyone in this world reveres and fears her, even as she pickpockets her way from town to town.
They use her name as if it were a title—the Melaklos—and refer to her using the gender-neutral pronoun ke which is reserved for gods, demons, and mythological creatures.
I unabashedly love the Melaklos. She’s a grande dame with an impudent streak and the knowledge of a scholar.
If only she could have stayed the central figure of The Panorama Egg.
Alas, Archer must find a foil to his shallow, fearful, cold wife. He finds this in a strong, warm, caring woman whose name rhymes with Diane—Nayan.
And things took a turn.
Take, for example, Archer and Nayan, sun-bathing nude during a festival. Mind you, they’ve never so much as kissed. Archer’s been pining a little bit, but Nayan’s hasn’t shown any interest, and the nude-thing is in no way sexual. Okay, so Nayan is asleep but Archer can’t stop thinking about her, looking at her … stroking her. He even goes so far as to literally roll her over from her stomach to her back—while she’s sleeping—so he can get a better view. He desperately wants to slide on in to third-base, but decides he can’t/won’t/shouldn’t while she’s sleeping. It wouldn’t be right.
At this point it’s waaaaay too late for that to feel like any sort of moral conviction.
Then Nayan wakes up while he’s touching her without her consent and they bone down. Gross.
Archer then becomes possessive and clingy about Nayan. Archer acts like he knows better than Nayan about this world that he’s only known for eight months. Archer acts like Nayan can’t take care of herself and questions her skills and her judgement. Archer is an asshole.
I started to wonder if maybe, just maybe, his wife wasn’t such a bad person. Maybe Diane had started out sweet and trusting and ten years of putting up with Archer’s shit had changed her. Maybe we shouldn’t be trusting Archer’s side of the story because honestly, he was juuust shy of being The Absolute Worst.
And then Archer hits the Melaklos when—for reasons of safety—she secretly sends Nayan away.
I wanted someone to put archer in the ground.
Even worse, at least from a story-telling perspective, the mystery of the Melaklos takes a back seat in favor of a very standard plot: an evil wizard with untoward power is rampaging and even though no-one knows how to stop him, somehow they must.
For the next unknown number of pages, the book was a slog. I didn’t care about the magician—named Sr of Nym. I didn’t care about Nayan, or the fact that that wasn’t her real name and she was definitely a secret Queen or some shit. I definitely didn’t care about Archer.
But the Melaklos would show up at just the right intervals and damnit, I really, really like her.
The ending goes off the rails a bit. You expect a somewhat straight-forward showdown with the Sr of Nym, but instead are granted a bit of political posturing, at least one traitor, a very unexpected mummy, Archer and friend falling through a portal to another world, unknown days spent in a subterranean vault where they nearly die of thirst, nearly die of hunger, and, at least for a, time, go absolutely mad. There’s also an aside about, essentially, time cops, before the final showdown with the Sr of Nym.
At this point I was more confused and flustered than anything else, and I mostly finished the book because I was so close to the end that I couldn’t not.
And yet I closed the book happy.
If your guess is that the Melaklos was somehow involved, you’re right. Her and her old friend Patterson, who she refers to as “my old” like some might say “my dear,” sit in his den and talk. And just like that, I’m happy.
I want a book about the Melaklos. You know how David Eddings wrote those asides especially about Polgara or Belgarath mostly to satisfy fans? I’d fucking kickstart a book about the Melaklos.
And apparently I’m not the only one that attached. An artist who goes by the name Pyracantha was commissioned by a friend to do a painting of the Melaklos. That’s a lot of dedication to a funny little pulp novel that has very little public recognition.
So do I recommend The Panorama Egg? Not really. Am I glad I read it? Very much so.
I guess that leaves me in a paradox.
(P.S. A.E. Silas stands for Ann Elizabeth Silas)
Cover Art by H.R. Van Dongen: