Wednesday, 1 June 2005

Pattern

K. J. Parker
Orbit Books
ISBN: 1-84149-182-9


Having resolved some small fraction of his identity crisis, Poldarn was last seen heading back across the waters with the savage Raiders, the people he was born to. Trawling the Empire for clues to his past have left him with a whole pile of confusing contradictions and more enemies than he can count, so returning home seems like the safe option. But when home is filled with folk whose memories work a good deal better than his; when home is an incomprehensible society where everyone knows their role and performs without question; why, then home isn’t home at all. Struggling to cope in a place he doesn’t remember but that remembers him, Poldarn finds himself wondering if his past should remain nothing more than a shadow…

Following on from a first book, the ending of which raised more questions than it answered, ‘Pattern’ continues in the same vein. The one section of Poldarn’s history that seemed to be clearing is suddenly complicated again by secrets and deception, while our amnesiac hero tries desperately to get to grips with a culture that seems utterly alien to him. And there is something very odd about the Raiders. Brutal and merciless killers when harrowing the Empire’s towns, in their home they become suddenly rather harmless and pastoral folk. Indeed, the vast majority of the novel is filled with the day-to-day business of the islanders’ farm communities and Poldarn’s hopeless attempts to fit in.

While Parker’s writing is engaging and witty, even Poldarn’s confusion and offbeat comments can’t keep farm life in all its tedium from dragging the pace to a screeching halt. The interactions between characters are nuanced and filled with portentous significance, but the constant barrage of symbolism and red herrings backfires slightly as the reader is forced to yield under the sheer weight of them. Whatever social commentary may have been intended – and it seems as though there is some deeper meaning intended by all this – is lost in the confusion. A shame, really, for just like its prequel this is a very clever book. Cleverer than me, at least.

When it is good, ‘Pattern’ is superb. The pace picks up towards the end as certain sneaking suspicions become more likely and the horrifying secrets of Poldarn’s past are revealed. The novel is overflowing with evocative phrases and vivid imagery, and does a good job of portraying Poldarn’s alienation among his own people. For those who enjoy being confused or have the intelligence to follow its myriad twists and turns, this will be a joy. Unlike so much fiction where the plot is depressingly predictable, it’s more than certain that this novel will keep the reader guessing to the end. It is one of ‘Pattern’s greatest strengths, but a great weakness too. Credibility is stretched just a little too far, the characters seemingly going out of their way to protect the author’s secrets.

Apart from those hoop-jumps deemed necessary for the plot’s fulfilment, the characters and their actions are realistic and all too human. While Poldarn himself remains a rather unsympathetic hero and strangely ambivalent to his own fate, the host of characters around him more than make up for this. Parker has created a world of people who act and think just like real humans do, with all their contradictions and absurdities artfully portrayed. In a way the vivid reality of even the supporting characters makes Poldarn, the supposed focus of our attention, rather bland by comparison. Despite the ever-deepening hole he finds himself in, it’s difficult to care. Confusion takes care of any lingering sympathy the reader might have for him, killing it stone dead.

For all its faults of pacing and overplayed metaphor, ‘Pattern’ is an intriguing and unique slice of fantasy. Those with the patience to struggle through the tedium of the earlier pages will unearth a tangled web of mystery where resolving one issue just ties knots in another. It’s frustrating but delightfully so, and I’d advise any reader who plans to fully understand ‘Pattern’s many threads to keep a notepad handy. One thing’s for sure: this is a book that will survive many readings, and each repetition will bring a little more clarity than the last. The only question is whether you’re willing to give ‘Pattern the attention it deserves. A place on my ‘conundrum wrapped in an enigma’ shelf awaits it, just as soon as I figure out that last nagging point…


This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com