Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
This is the second volume of three which comprise a set called `The Invisible College’. The first volume `They do things differently here’ was reviewed earlier this year and was found to suffer from a confusing narrative. The plot is now more clearly developed which is a bit of a relief to the reader.
A semi-religious order with an origin obscure in ancient times, known as The Sect has infiltrated government both here and around the world with the intention of asserting its altruistic governance into the minds of all humanity. The view is that the major world powers are not doing enough for the well-being of the population. This has a ring of truth to it. However, The Sect, or rather a faction within it, seeks to overthrow the established order by tilting the planet to create new North and South poles, using the consequential chaos and calamity as the means to seize control.
The Sect is divided between the Pros and the Cons. The former believes in divinely inspired individuals making big discoveries, whilst the latter prefer to be close to the land, working in harmony with the natural forces that define and govern human life. The division is between revolutionary action and evolutionary progress.
The Sect sees the Universe in a mechanistic way drawing inspiration from the Nordic legends known as `Grottasongr’ in which two giant maidens, Fenja and Menja, use their huge mill to power the movement of the sun and stars around the fixed, flat earth. `Grottasongr’ is an old Norse poem preserved in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. This is quite late in the Nordic cycle being more medieval than Late Antiquity, so it does not quite possess the role asserted for it in this story. However, let’s treat that as poetic license.
Our two young heroes, Emily and Peter, are new to the district of Templewood which seems to have slipped off the map of the United Kingdom to become an enclave where experimental farms are run by the military and an armed opposition known as `the maquis’ opportunistically causes minor disturbances. The role of Emily and Peter’s father in all this is deliberately obscure as he is a leading member of the intelligence community.
Peter is seen by both factions in The Sect as possessing aptitudes necessary for their particular excesses. He has dreams from which certain ideas and facts can be divined. These dreams lead him away from his sister’s side towards secret meetings with The Pros. These events are all dressed up in extravagant ritual to ensure that nobody knows the identity of their colleagues. A mystery indeed!
Not so long ago the writer’s group to which this reviewer belongs received a guest with a planned novel they wanted to develop. It was a tremendous network of sequential events articulated in great detail. What it lacked was a coherent, driving passion. Its stark form was an intellectual exercise containing no humanity, no character and precious little personality. It was if anything a sequence of analytical observations. Sadly, this Invisible College trilogy possesses the same attributes. The reader is not drawn into the novel to become complicit with the plot. Information is deliberately withheld from the reader, no doubt with the intention of creating suspense but all it does in reality is cause muddle and frustration.
Like the proverbial curate’s egg, parts of the story are excellent. The methodology of an Emergency Disaster Procedure is superbly illustrated. There is also a very instructive passage on germ warfare and the hybridisation of insect populations which demonstrate research, knowledge and writing skills of considerable competence. There is also a lengthy dissertation on the Book of Revelations which is quite informative even though I consider this portion of the New Testament as the rantings of a sick and troubled man. Then there are also several pages about how to produce a bent map, forgetting of course that Google Earth makes this all irrelevant.
The passages that dig up Gnostic Christianity and inevitably the Cathars were irritating beyond belief. What is it with contemporary writers that they never, ever properly research the Cathar dualist belief? We have Dan Brown rushing about followed by all the nonsense of `Holy Blood, Holy Grail’, so why do writers think we need even more served up? It is enough to turn a man into a murderous monk! Why can’t modern writers settle down with a copy of Stephen Runciman’s classic `The Medieval Manichee’ and take a deep breath. By all means use dualist imagery in stories, I do it myself but please make it work for its living rather than simply flash the word about like a pair of dirty knickers, too indecent to address.
There are interesting passages relating to sound in the landscape. The idea that chanting can be induced by earth tremors is very much in line with modern research into the primeval soundscape. This develops at one point into a discussion of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music in particular. I am not so sure that his second wife Ursula, whom I met a very long time ago would have been so enthused, but it is known that archaeologists are researching how sound works in Neolithic stone circles and cathedrals.
Once again, just with the first volume the reader is left with an unwholesome narrative. There is clear intelligence underpinning this work with a reasonable writing style, but the entire story is poorly assembled. This novel is not what it could be. The need for harsh editing is evident. An improved plot structure would make it feel less like homework. Nobody buys a novel for homework unless it is a set book in a course. I have now started on the third book in the hope there will be salvation. I remain unconvinced, but the Book of Revelations is the least convincing part of the New Testament.