Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Brasyl by Ian McDonald

In River of Gods, Ian McDonald's award-winning 2004 novel, the author explored the future of India, a country not normally noted for its appearances in SF. Brasyl is a thematic sequel, set in another country which receives short shrift in depictions of the century ahead. It is also an accomplished, startling novel which I wouldn't be surprised to see walk off with the Hugo next year.

Brasyl is split into three narrative strands and the novel alternates between them sequentially. In Rio de Janeiro in 2006, a reality TV producer named Marcelina pitches a killer idea for a new show that sees her tracking down a retired footballer blamed for disgracing his country in a former World Cup defeat. However, a mysterious woman seems out to wreck Marcelina's life and her career.

In Sao Paulo in 2032, a city watched over by satellites where criminals must be tech-savvy in order to survive, a thief named Edson finds himself embroiled in a strange sequence of events revolving around quantum computers and a beautiful computer scientist.

In 1732 a Jesuit priest named Quinn is tasked by his superiors to travel up the Amazon in search of a priest who has gone rogue and is carving out his own kingdom as a false messiah. This Heart of Darkness-style journey leads Quinn into a very unusual place, and the key which binds these three stories together.

Brasyl is a remarkably assured, accomplished book. It is an SF epic that explores quantum science more successfully than just about any other attempt at it in fiction to date. It is partly an evocative description of a fascinating country, bringing Brazil to life in a remarkable fashion. The hot jungles, the music, the people, the dances and the whole atmosphere of the country is brought to life in a highly vivid manner, even if McDonald's casual use of Brazilian terminology soon has you scrambling for the Portugese glossary at the rear of the book on a regular basis. It is beautifully written, but not at the expense of a highly intriguing story or fascinating characters. There is a lot of humour here (the opening sequence where one of Marcelina's programme ideas backfires is a prime example), as well as unexpected action, a lot of it involving the Q-Blade, a futuristic energy weapon that makes lightsabres look clumsy in comparison.

What is most impressive is how each of these three storylines develops in turn, involving the reader in each cast of characters before switching to another POV, and then another. I suspect readers will come to like some of these characters more than others, and will be tempted to skip the characters they like less. This would be a major mistake, as the storylines' combined development works both thematically (as the three, arguably four, main POV characters develop in tandem, allowing the reader to contrast their differing reactions to their circumstances) and literally, as McDonald pulls off a late, game-changing plot development that would be lessened by reading any one of the storylines in isolation.

is a remarkable novel, causing the reader to think and ponder the significance of the storyline (probably whilst pondering how much a holiday to Rio would cost) for some time after it is finished. There are some very minor flaws - a series of exposition-heavy sequences near the end of the book feel a tad out of place and unnecessary - but it overcomes these with aplomb.

Brasyl (*****) is available in the USA from Pyr Books now (note: please avoid the Harriet Klausner review on the link as it does spoil the major plot revelation from the end of the book). It will be published on 21 June by Gollancz in the UK.


Ed S. said...

Good review. Now that I've finished Black Man this is the next one on my list.

I have yet to figure out how Harriet Klausner can read 4 or 5 books a day, every day, and post reviews on them on Amazon. That doesn't annoy me as much as the fact that she seems to like everything she's ever read making her "reviews" pretty much worthless.

Slack Bladder said...

Nice review. I think that Ian McDonald is a very underrated writer. Have you read River of Gods? It's also incredible.

I couldn't agree more with your previous commentator about Harriet Klausner's reviews. She likes absolultely everything and is, therefore, not a yardstick to use at all.

Adam Whitehead said...

I wasn't using her as a yardstick. The Amazon link I provided features her review of the book, which doesn't hold back from spoilers. The review itself is, naturally, worthless.

I'm hoping to get to River of Gods next year. Looks like 2009 will be McDonald-tastic with Cyberabad Days definitely coming out and apparently the possibility of Dervish House (his SF book on Turkey) coming soon after, or perhaps early 2010.