By Cheryl Morgan
I have been saying for a very long time that it is a great shame that Sean Williams is not better known outside of Australia. Last year Pyr made me very happy by producing a US edition of the excellent The Resurrected Man. This year, however, they have topped that by issuing the first of Williamsí latest fantasy series, the Books of the Cataclysm. In Australia in 2005 The Crooked Letter won both Best Fantasy Novel in the Aurealis Awards and Best Novel in the Ditmars, which is a very rare achievement. Readers outside Australia can now find out what all of the fuss is about.
Iíll emphasize that year again. The Crooked Letter was published in 2004 and won awards in 2005. I say that because Iím pretty sure you will see some reviews that accuse the book of being a rip-off of Hal Duncanís Vellum, whereas in fact it was published first. Great minds do indeed think alike. Both Vellum and The Crooked Letter deal with a war in heaven and merrily mix up mythologies on the assumption that the religions mortals have created are merely vague graspings at the awful cosmological truth. From there, however, the two books diverge. Many people have accused Vellum of being lacking in direction and plot. The Crooked Letter lacks neither, but it doesnít have Vellumís literary pyrotechnics. Some will doubtless say that Williams has produced the sort of book that Duncan ought to have written. Others will say that The Crooked Letter proves why Vellum had to be written as it was. As usual, readers will pick the style of writing that suits them best.
Meanwhile, back with the war in heaven. Williams has thrown a veritable smorgasbord of mythology into his novel, but the underlying theme is very simple and very Lovecraftian. Yes, there are gods, and no, they donít give a stuff about humans, except maybe as food.
"Understand, Hadrian, that I have no problem with predation per se. It always amazed me that so few religious philosophers ever wondered what the soul was for. I mean, if it exists, it has to fit in with everything else. A lion eats a deer, and a lionís blood is drunk by ticks. An ant milks the secretions of an aphid, and is in turn eaten by an anteater. Nothing escapes the food cycle, so why should the soul?"
The cosmological underpinning (Williams does have one, and manages to make it fairly understandable) is that universes can bifurcate and recombine. Our universe has split twice, each time causing a major catastrophe. Here in the West we know those events best as The Fall and The Flood. The resulting three universes are very different. The First Realm, ruled over rather sleepily by the god Baal, is dominated by physical laws. Human beings are very much at home there. The Second Realm is a realm of magic dominated by force of will rather than by physical laws. It is the home of demons, but is currently ruled by the alien interloper, Yod. The Third Realm is that of choice, and sounds a bit like a quantum soup, but we donít see much of it in The Crooked Letter.
What gives us a story is that connections can be made between the realms through the agency of mirror twins. They are like identical twins, except that everything is opposite between them, even down to one having his heart on the right side of his body. Seth and Hadrian Castillo are a pair of such twins. Seth, the elder, is brash and overconfident; Hadrian is wracked with self-doubt and self-pity. The boys, who are Australian, are touring Europe when they meet and both fall in love with Ellis Quick. Little do the squabbling brothers know, however, that their lives are being watched from another universe. Yod knows that if it can kill one of the twins it can create a link between the First and Second Realms that will cause them to begin to merge. Baal is old and feeble, and the First Realm is just chock full of delicious souls. Yod is like a kid given the keys to a candy store.
The book follows the fortunes of the boys: one still alive, one dead and in the Second Realm, as they try to work out why their world has suddenly gone crazy. There is rather a lot of the old ploy of characters telling our hero that they know a lot about him, but they canít tell him yet because the time is not right. That minor annoyance apart, however, thereís a lot of fun to be had. I was particularly struck by the vivid imagery of Williamsí worlds. I wanted to see the book done as a comic ó preferably by someone who has already worked on books like Hellblazer ó so I could see all of the weird demons Williams had created. It is also noticeable that Williams has spent a lot of time watching supernatural TV series, and the car ads that riff off them.
Hadrian and the others emerged from the tunnel into another subterranean car park. This one was seven floors deep and wide enough to hold hundreds of cars, its ceiling low and vaulted in heavy concrete like a tomb. The sedans and SUVs resembled gleaming sarcophagi placed neatly in rows, regularly polished by some macabre undertaker. They seemed to be resting, biding their time for the opportunity to swarm ó driverless, empty windscreens as blank as a madmanís stare ó out of their parks and into the eerie streets.
Pleasingly The Crooked Letter, despite being only book one of a series, does come to a sensible conclusion. Somewhat more surprisingly the book also turns out to be a prequel to Williamsí recent Books of the Change series in that it describes how the world of those books came into being. You do not, however, need to have read the Books of the Change to follow The Crooked Letter. Which is just as well because the former still havenít been published outside Australia. Hopefully The Crooked Letter will do well enough for Pyr that they can take on the other series as well.