Thursday, 5 September 2013

Book Review: The Many Coloured Land

The Many-Coloured Land (Saga of Pliocene Exile, #1)The Many-Coloured Land by Julian May
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Julian May's works were introduced to me by my science fiction/fantasy loving mum when I was 14-years-old, after I'd grown bored of "kids books" and had already worked my way through her Tanith Lee collection and a scattering of Stephen Donaldson/Sherri Tepper/Anne McCaffrey books. The Many Coloured Land was the first of May's works I was given and I quickly devoured the whole series it belonged to, as well as the subsequent quadrilogy. Once I finished them, I immediately started the whole series again from the beginning - with a new perspective on the story and my mind blown that a writer could weave such a detailed and clever tale. Now sixteen years on I was given my very own copies from the republished versions and plunged myself into a book that has been such a huge influence on me (more detail on that later). I wondered though: would they be as powerful, magical and immersive this time around?

The important thing to remember when starting The Many Coloured Land is that this is the first book in a very long series. It has a tonne of scene setting and character exploration to do before events can kick off proper. It opens far, far in earth's past with a mysterious ship crashing into a planet with basic primate life. Wizz bang, and we're suddenly in the 22nd century on Earth, which is now a member of the "Galactic Milieu", an alliance of intergalactic species that have enough members of their race with mind powers to partake in a "Unity", a kind of nirvana state where many individuals join mentally to become as one. It is in this new world that a French scientist called Guderian accidentally creates a time vortex in his garden that has the odd ability to send anything you put in it back to the Pliocene era. But there's a catch: it's a one way trip and any object not removed from the vortex area will be aged 6 million years on the return journey. Not seeing any purpose to the vortex, Guderian closes it off from prying eyes.

When Guderian dies his wife is in a huge amount of debt. Just when she wonders how she'll get by, a stranger arrives at her home asking about the vortex: he would like to go through it, into the Pliocene, away from the Milieu and will pay her a handsome sum of money to do so. She accepts and before long more people arrive in dribs and drabs to go through the portal. She turns it into a business but one that conforms to her values, with a full training and induction programme for all those that wish to travel back to a simpler time and only after psychiatric testing. Then one day she too travels through the portal, trusting the business to her employees.

At this point I should mention that we haven't even met the main characters by this point (like I said, there's a lot of scene setting). But it's one of the things I adored about this book - I learned how to read a story just for what it is, and not what I want it to be and in the process I was immersed in an amazing world. What follows is a series of chapters introducing each of the protagonists (there are about 7 of them) and showing us their lives and their unhappiness in this apparently idyllic future world. Eventually they all end up in the same team that goes through the portal like so many before them. But when they arrive in the Pliocene era things are far from what they expected. Non-human creatures are in charge, tall and beautiful and all wearing golden torcs. The humans, who seem to work for them, all wear silver or grey torcs and seem very happy. It doesn't take long though for the truth to be revealed; humanity has become a slave to this alien race and our heroes must either accept their futures, or fight for their freedom.

Those who don't like a book with a slow pace, or where the real action doesn't start until three quarters of the way in (I checked, it's seriously three quarters before the back story elements are done with) - avoid this book. It is a back story book with some important action at the end. I had forgotten until I started them but the following books have an opening section that catches the reader up on what happened in the last one. For those who just can't sit through a back story I'd suggest starting with the second book, The Golden Torc, and reading the introduction to work out who the characters are and what's happened so far. But if you can force yourself through this first book you will be rewarded as the story goes on; your knowledge of the characters will be deeper and thereby their later exploits that much more meaningful and tragic.

It could be argued the Many Coloured Land could have been cut down, or involved more of the main story. Having read the whole series before I know this wouldn't have worked; the depth and complexity of the story, the setting and the characters needs this introductory book. The concepts it introduces are not easy to explain and need time to settle into your imagination. This is where my deep love of this book comes from; it introduced concepts to me that have remained important to me into adulthood - the idea that all things are connected, that the human mind is so much more than just a brain, and that the potential for good and ill is in all of us, waiting for our decisions to make them a reality and especially that sometimes you have to suffer in order to attain what you want in the long term or to do what is right. Though this first book doesn't go deeply into the philosophy, it sets the scene for the later books that do delve into these ethical and philosophical questions - for that alone I can't recommend it enough.

via Goodreads

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