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The Greatwinter Trilogy
by Sean McMullen

Reviewed by Michael Woodard
Posted March 1, 2006; Updates on March 5 and May 2

Souls in the Great Machine / The Miocene Arrow / Eyes of the Calculor

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Two thousand years from now, mankind ekes out a haggard, almost feudal existence. The earth is recovering from a 'Greatwinter,' the result of a long forgotten war, while ever alert 'sentinels' in the sky call down instant destruction on mechanical devices. Old technology is not the only threat, however - from the sea, a strange and mysterious 'Call' lures both man and beast to their death.

In Australian society, Librarians, keepers of ancient knowledge, have become an elite class and fight duels for honor and position. The leader of the librarians, Cybeline Zarvora, intends to defy all of these new rules of existence - but to do so, she must first secretly build her own machine…

Souls in the Great Machine is the first part of Sean McMullen's Greatwinter Trilogy. Is it possible to read something extremely well written, with great inventiveness and a brilliant concept and still be annoyed as hell when you put down the book? That's kind of how I felt when finishing Souls in the Great Machine. I loved so much about this book it should easily overshadow my little gripes. Well, apparently they aren't so little if it bugs me this much, right? Right.

The problem is- I can't really say too much about what is buggin' me without giving away some big plot twists. The most I can say is that I don't approve of some of the character development in the book. It sounds petty, and maybe it is, but in order to create and maintain believable characters, they have to behave in something I consider a 'realistic' way.

The truth is, I'm not even sure if most people would notice what I'm talking about without me giving specific examples. So maybe it's just me- maybe I just had the wrong impression of a few of the characters. It's hard to say. I'll have to see what happens in the next part of the trilogy.

Outside of that personal gripe, the book was excellent. I would recommend it. It would be worth reading if only for it's impressively developed world - but it offers much more than that: it was fun, brutal, inventive and entertaining. His characters were enjoyable, even if I didn't personally like where he took some of them. It very much is a really good book, and I'm intensely curious to know if anyone else feels similar to how I do about not feeling some of his character development was 'quite right,' or if it's just me.


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Two thousand years from now, North America is ruled by the Airlords, an elite class on top of a largely feudal and stratified society. Wars of honor are fought with strict rules of conduct in flying face-offs in airships that must meet strict guidelines - lest ancient 'Sentinels' in the sky shoot them down. All this takes place on a continent largely wiped clean by a mysterious 'Call' from the sea that lures the unprepared to their doom.

A radical group of 'callwalkers,' people immune to the call, has come to the continent from Australia, seeking to use their unique gift to steal the secrets of the airships and unleash a plan to wipe out the normal humanity that has vilified and persecuted them forever: a plan called The Miocene Arrow.

I was impressed by McMullen's inventiveness and high adventure in the first book of the series, though I did have some issue with some of his character development. The Miocene Arrow also has a similar annoyance or two, but the consequences of the character 'turns' in this book are far less prominent - which made the book a much more enjoyable read.

Maybe it's the author image at the back of these books that made the word spring to mind, but a word that describes McMullen's work well is 'swashbuckling.' The characters are fairly simple but easy to enjoy for the most part, and there is much daring-do and amusement to be found. His social structures are very well developed, even if some of his characters' traits aren't. The stories themselves have a distinct 'adventure on the high seas' feel to them and I can't help thinking of cheesy Errol Flynn movies from the early era of film when I'm reading these books. Damn that author image! I can't get the comparison out of my mind! But somehow, it works. :D

It is the settings and imaginative world that truly make these stories stand apart. While I didn't find the characters always behaving in believable ways, the world itself seemed entirely plausible - even the nature of the origins of the strange 'Call.' The societies in this world could easily be extrapolated from what has already existed or exists now, and they fit well in the future McMullen has created.

I'd give the second book an even higher thumbs up than the first, and I think it possibly could stand on it's own as it's own adventure - though reading the first book would give you some deeper insights into some of the few re-occurring characters.


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Eyes of the Calculor, is the conclusion of McMullen’s Greatwinter Trilogy. As society in North America is being radically altered, for better or worse, by the cessation of the Call, Airlord Salmondel takes an impossible risk: securing the future of her civilization by traveling to a land on the opposite side of the world. No one believes it is possible - yet she succeeds, only to be shot down while over the commonwealth of Rochester, run by the new head of the Dragon Librarians, Highliber Dramoran.

It’s hard to summarize this book, and the above probably doesn’t do the novel any justice. There is a lot going on in this book, as it attempts, and mostly succeeds, at wrapping up a lot of story arcs from the previous two novels and some started within itself.

How to summarize my feelings on this book and the series itself is probably even more difficult, because I’m of a lot of opinions there as well. McMullen is a damn good writer. He is entertaining, his world is fantastic yet plausible, and his prose carries you along at a pace that never falters and never drags. It is impossible to read these books and not enjoy them. What McMullen is not, unfortunately, is a great writer. It’s frustrating to say that, because he’s so damn close to it, it’s impossible not to want it for him and maddening when it is so easy to see clearly what is keeping him from being a great writer: character development that in many cases is unrealistic and disappointing.

At some point, in every book including this one, one of the characters, probably one of the ones you are rooting for, is going to go nuts for no strongly compelling reason and become the ‘bad guy.’ This re-occurring theme is unfortunate, especially since so much of the plot revolves around these almost spur of the moment ‘lets go nuts’ scenarios. In the first book I wrote it off to ‘maybe it’s just me,’ in the second book, the ‘go nuts’ moment had less of an impact on the overall plot, and seemed to be reigned in at some point, so it was easier to overlook. In the conclusion, the ‘lets go nuts’ moment was pulled out at the end as if it were supposed to be a surprise, but it only managed to sour an otherwise excellent book.

Overall, the series itself is very good, and I would recommend it. It is possible that someone else might not even notice or mind the bizarre character development that made me so annoyed. It still might simply be a ‘maybe it’s just me’ thing.


Related Links:
McMullen's Official Site


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