Tuesday, 1 June 2010


David Barnett
Immanion Press (www.immanion-press .com)

Eastern Europe seems to be a popular destination for awakening amnesiacs, these days. I’ve complained about novelists’ fondness for mindwiped protagonists fairly recently on this site, so I won’t do it again – other than to express a hope that I’ve filled my tabula rasa quotient for the coming decade.

This time, in this novel, our nameless hero wakes up in modern-day Prague – nice place to find yourself, not that he’d know – and falls in with a close-knit gang of environmentally active ex-pats. Then he wakes up again – or someone very much like him does – in a medieval Prague ruled over by the eccentric Rudolph II, head of the Holy Roman Empire and enthusiast of the scientific and supernatural arts. In the silver city where angels drift, meanwhile, one of their number is dabbling in affairs denied to him by heavenly law…

In both past and present Prague, David Barnett’s hero falls swiftly and with improbably good fortune under the protective wing of benevolent strangers. This might seem clumsy contrivance on the author’s part, taken at face value, but the mirroring of one time with another makes it quickly apparent that there’s something out of the ordinary at work here. He’s christened Poutnik by new-found friends in both times: wanderer, it means, or pilgrim. And there is something of Bunyan’s Pilgrim about this foundling, an innocence to his passage through the world. In medieval and modern times he finds himself caught up in events of great significance, accompanying eco-warrior flatmates as they make plans to protest a huge oil symposium, and adopted by mad Rudolph as an augur of truth while vested interests in the royal court push and pull the emperor in all directions.

Yet for all the turbulence around him, Poutnik seems to remain undisturbed. Such a passive protagonist – always watching, rarely speaking except when spoken to – is a substantial hurdle to reader engagement. There’s nothing in there to sympathise with, no real thoughts and feelings beyond those reflected in his polished surface – emotions drawn from his surroundings, not from any core of being. And that, again, is clearly a conscious choice on Barnett’s part, as it can be no accident Rudolph names his new pet the ‘Mirror of Prague’.

Instead Barnett’s supporting characters are made to do all the heavy lifting, driving the plot along and pulling the observers – Poutnik and reader both – along in their wake. This is effective in the modern world, where the inhabitants of the ‘Prague House’ are deftly painted with an economy of stroke which balances pace and personality. In Rudolph’s capital, meanwhile, the characterisation is more hurried and less plausible, as factions and their pawns scuttle on and off the stage with much fanfare and little overall effect. The result is a sense of watching a period performance, rather than some living, breathing world; scratch the surface, the reader feels, and you’ll find canvas and papier mache underneath.

The one area in which the old-world Prague breaks this tendency towards the superficial is in Barnett’s description of the Jewish ghetto. There’s a sense of appalling squalor and pointless persecution to the circumstances of Angelglass’ Jews, which goes no small way towards a realist depiction of the anti-semitism so prevalent in historic Europe and provides some of the novel’s most emotionally powerful scenes. Indeed, the tribalism and endemic racism of the period are likewise effectively conveyed, and Barnett does well to avoid painting a sanitised or romantic version of European culture.

This realism is undermined, however, by the appearance of real magic; near-indestructible mercenaries and Rabbi Loeb’s Golem rise to threaten both the city itself and the internal logic of the book in which it rests. If this is a world where magic exists – or existed, in the past – so overtly, why is nobody in Barnett’s present-day Prague aware of it? To point to legend as an adequate alibi for such explicit supernatural events seems to give little credit to humanity’s tendency towards relentless dissection of its own history.

In the modern world, the housemates are instead more preoccupied with their forthcoming protests and the secrets among their fellow environmentalists. Some are more fanatical than others, and two absent figures cast long shadows over the Prague House – local ringleader John, and legendary super-activist Deva. Barnett builds an effective sense of dread as the oil symposium draws ever closer, and his characters swap stories of both men which only add to the reader’s certainty that whatever happens, this is not going to end well…

When the climax comes, though, it’s a rushed affair which manages to dispel all that carefully hoarded suspense with the clumsy equivalent of a Poirot parlour scene or James Bond villainous monologue. Everyone stands around listening to the one with the gun (or historical equivalent) talk at endless length; accusations and insults are traded; there’s some quick double- and triple-crossing; violence inevitably ensues. Through this all Poutnik effectively sits quiet and ineffective, ever the observer – although in historic Prague he at least gives the impression of giving a damn. As the cutting between the two time periods becomes quicker and more abrupt – a narrative device for building energy which is rather clumsily employed here – the impression you get most is that Barnett was coming up too fast on some self-imposed page limit and decided to cut the novel short in the most expedient manner possible.

The novel’s dénouement goes some way to explaining – or at least attempting to justify – this sudden explosion of incident, but to the reader it feels like too little too late. These closing revelations could possibly be enough for some, casting all that well-laid foreshadowing in a different light as what appeared to be one thing is revealed as something else – but I at least found myself thinking ‘That’s the big surprise? Seriously?’
In the end, Angelglass is a moderately well-handled display of sound and fury, but when the lights come up they reveal only a hollow, posturing shell where the story should be. There’s no doubt David Barnett’s got some talent as a stylist, but next time he might want to spend a little more effort on the plot.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com