The Sigil Trilogy
(Click subsequent titles to skip to that part of the review)
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: Siege of Stars / Book 2: Scourge of Stars / Book 3: Rage of Stars
Henry Gee is a senior editor of the science journal Nature, specializing in the biological sciences. His degrees are in paleontolgy and evolutionary biology. He has published several non-fiction books but this is his first novel, although he did contribute a short story to Futures From Nature, an anthology he edited in 2008 from stories originally printed in that periodical. This is the fifth book from ReAnimus Press that I have reviewed, although the other four were provided free. I bought this based on several positive blurbs from prominent writers (Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear, Michael Moorcock), plus I had a discount code. Even now they're fairly inexpensive in e-book editions, with Siege of Stars just 99¢. The first book is well worth that dollar, but that price might be temporary. The other two are $9.99 separately, or you can get the complete trilogy for $15.99 (higher for print editions - see links in column to the right). [Current prices on amazon are lower, but might also be temporary.]
It will be difficult to discuss the merits of the first book without revealing too much, but I do need to talk about some ways in which it was lacking. It's good, just not great (yet), but intriguing enough to continue with the series. The positives can best be viewed in comparisons to other writers, the two most prominent being Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C. Clarke. Memories of the former were evoked due to the vastness of time and space that is covered in the story, of the latter from one particular scene toward the end of this first book. A few elements do verge on fantasy, or that is what I was thinking in the beginning. Certain characters could possibly be viewed as god-like beings, although when I re-read the first few chapters this morning I got a different perspective. The confusion stems from the use of the term "baryonic matter" at different times. That term means practically everything we understand as a physical form of matter, with non-baryonic matter being something like a neutrino or the hypothesized axions, cold dark matter.
The story jumps back and forth between several different time periods, from the distant past to the near future. The first chapter, more of a prologue really, is set in 1979 and introduces the character of Ruxton Carr, along with a beautiful woman, although she is not named at that time. It's just a few pages, then it flashes back 68,700,000 years, to characters who are "herding the Drove" through the vastness of space. If I interpreted this correctly, the Drove is a combination of natural forces that help shape the cosmos, or as is feared by some of the drovers, a threat to the continued existence of all matter. Two of the leaders of this group, along with an acolyte, materialize in physical form, maybe on a planet, perhaps just in an imagined reality. They discuss their fears of the uncontrollable Drove, with the two elders convinced their younger colleague is the one most likely to come up with a solution. I'm not sure these entities have a gender identity, although the two elders take on the appearance of human males, with their protogé appearing as female. Her name at that time is Merlin, the two elders being Solomon and Saturn. Others of their group also have recognizable names from history or mythology - Uther, Guiniver, Enid, Roland, Orfeo. Either Gee is implying that human racial memory later gave those names to legendary or literary figures, or else this part of the story is told from a later perspective and merely in such a way to make those characters more relatable. Another confusing thing is Solomon's use of the terms Planck Constant and Oort Cloud, which would seem to imply an aspect of reverse racial memory. But these beings are not human, although Merlin does later appear in human form (always female, so far at least) to others on Earth.
Ruxton Carr is an electronics genius, one who parlays his knowledge and business acumen into a vast global empire, providing computers and other electronic parts to a wide array of businesses, governments and military establishments. Little does he know that a lot of that would not have been possible without the manipulations of one of his assistants, Jade Marks (Merlin in disguise). At first I thought it was just a coincidence of names, but millions of years prior to this, Merlin manipulates another "man" in an earlier civilization. It hasn't been confirmed in the first book, but Ruxton Carr has to be a reincarnation of Ruxhana Fengen Kraa, a military commander in an ancient (and space-faring) Earth civilization of more than 55 million years ago. This seems to be verified by the way Jade Marks addressed Ruxton during that 1979 encounter. I put the word man in quotes there because Ruxhana is definitely not homo sapien. Several different aspects of anatomy are mentioned, such as the female Xalomé (Merlin again) having five pairs of breasts instead of one. The last time we see Kraa he is on the verge of embarking on a mysterious mission, the details of which he (and the reader) is ignorant, everything having been manipulated by Xalomé. It was during this segment that I possibly misunderstood Xalomé's use of the term baryonic, thinking she implied that she was not of such matter. Then on re-reading the opening introduction of Merlin and the other drovers, I realized they did acknowledge that they are material beings, not spirits or gods or whatever you might want to call such ethereal entities.
In the near future, beginning in 2021, we encounter Merlin again, although this time she goes by the name Jadis Markham. She is an undergraduate student at Cambridge who becomes the assistant of doctoral candidate Jack Corstophine, who is on the verge of great discoveries which will reshape man's knowledge of the past. His studies and archeological digs are underwritten in large part by Ruxton Carr, who has left the business world behind in favor of philanthropic endeavors. It hasn't happened yet, but I was wondering if Ruxton would ever encounter Jadis, and whether or not she has the same appearance as she did as Jade Marks. Every other chapter goes back and forth between the time periods of Ruxhana and Xalomé and Jack and Jadis. Parts are confusing because even though I am sure Xalomé and Jadis are both manifestations of Merlin, they have completely different personalities and seem to be working in different ways in manipulating their men. Xalomé appears cruel and unfeeling for the most part, putting Ruxhana through painful transformations, while Jadis is a kind and considerate woman. She falls in love with Jack, they marry and she becomes pregnant, all during the time they are studying together, helping each other write thesis papers, as well as working on various digs in England and France. Jack's big discoveries are centered around two different regions of France, in which artifacts of unknown origin have been found. He is convinced they predate recorded history by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years. It is too soon to tell if those artifacts come from Ruxhana's civilization, or if there is yet another one (or more) between it and the rise of man.
This is just fiction of course, and it is hard to imagine an advanced civilization such as Ruxhana's that long ago, but is it really that unrealistic? Very often, certainly at least once a year, we read of discovery of fossils from some previously unknown species of dinosaur, mammal or fish, and almost as often of heretofore undiscovered species that are alive in the world today. We know there have been several devastating extinction events, but we know little of how many and what types of animals survived those events, or the extent of new evolutionary trends in various epochs. It's not inconceivable that there have been pinnacles of evolution that for whatever reason did not survive long or leave a trace - that we've found at least. It's easy enough to accept the proposition because Gee gives us reasons to care for the characters. His knowledge of evolution and biology lends credence to the ideas, making them convincing enough that I went googling for things that sounded so real and plausible but are apparently fictional fabrications. But the science does not overwhelm the story. As alien as Ruxhana is, he is still a sympathetic character, while Jack is a noble and dedicated researcher, living only for the work but not the acclaim that work might bring. Of course, he is also a man, and his reactions to the beautiful and compassionate Jadis are touching and poignant. Plus, he is hardly the only one she enchants. I think it safe to say that every man who has met her is in love with her, but she seems to be unaware of her allure. This contradicts the personality of Xalomé, but that might be explained away by the different tasks they are trying to accomplish.
I did say there are some negatives, but they are slight and forgivable. The main one is most evident in the Jack and Jadis segments, and involves the non-linearity of the narrative. On multiple occasions there were flashbacks or side-track thoughts that hindered the flow of the story. That didn't happen in the Ruxhana/Xalomé segments. Another fault is a weak climax without a cliffhanger revelation. It should have ended several pages before it did, right at the point of Jack's biggest discovery, which would have had a greater impact on the reader to start on the second book right away. I will continue with this for sure, but I do have several other books I want to get to before that. Oh, and that scene that reminded me of Clarke? I won't give you the details, but the vision that popped into my head after that big discovery was quite like I experienced the first time the explorers ventured inside Rama.
Book 2: Scourge of Stars
There are certain things about the second book that made me start to question whether or not Jadis Markham is actually the same enitity as Merlin, Xalomé and Jade Marks. I think she is, although the way she acts is different. The only thing that might confirm my original assumption is that by the end of this book she is nearly 35 years older than when she was introduced, but there are multiple comments that she does not appear to have aged that much. Another incarnation of Merlin is glimpsed in another civilization that came nearly 50 million years after that of Ruxhana Fengen Kraa, and at that time she is referred to as the Goddess HaShekhna. She also appears to a merchant named Khorare (maybe another incarnation of Kraa, not sure) at another time a mere 125,000 years before the current era. She makes it clear to him that she can change her appearance at will. In all those other scenes she is the insitgator of the action, while it appears that Jadis is only an observer of events. I had originally intended to move on to another book, but this mystery about Jadis, and the way Scourge ends, makes me want to finish the trilogy as soon as possible. I've already read the opening chapters of the third book.
I previously said that the first book ended on a bit of an anti-climax, and I still think the final chapter would have made a better opening one for the second book. After Jack and Jadis' major discovery, one of their colleagues, Avi Malkeinu, returns to his native Israel, and about nine months later he is on hand for another momentous event in North Africa. From the descriptions I am sure this is approximately the same location we see in several chapters of this book, the ones set about 6,355,000 years ago. The cover image of this book is from the discovery in France of a vast underground city, actually many cities built on top of each other over a very long period of pre-history. The sigil which lends its name to the trilogy is found inside the pyramid, and it exhibits mysterious properties and is made of a material unknown to modern science. They are able to keep this item secret, at least through this book, because they fear it is an alien artifact, and news of its existence could be devastating to the world. I'm not sure how it could be much worse than what is going on in other parts of the world at the same time. In North Africa, a group that call themselves the Annakhnu (meaning "Us") but later nicknamed Sand Druids, make themselves known to outsiders. They are hominids, but not human, although it seems they've been hiding in plain sight as it were, and they are knowledgeable of current events and know several human languages. Shortly after this, several other species come out of hiding as well, including those that resemble the fabled Sasquatch and Yeti. I was disappointed with this development. I was willing to accept that other species evolved before homo sapiens and established thriving civilizations, even Kraa's which spread into space, but having these previous species still be alive today, that does stretch the credibility a bit thin.
It doesn't ruin the book, since there are many other elements that intrigued me, and even though this book ends in 2054, there are things that relate to current world news. ISIS is in nearly every other headline these days, but in the future the threat from Islam takes the form of the Khalifa, which has been amassing great armies and aquiring massive arsenals of planes, tanks and bombs. They had long been planning strikes against the infidels of any religion that pre-dates Islam, and that now includes many other religions coming to light with the emergence of the pre-historical archeological sites and ancient species. Avi and his wife Rivka had been working on a similar dig in Israel, not as big or as old as the one in France, but their findings are still significant. Somehow the Khalifa has learned of their project, and it is one of their targets when they attack, along with Masada and other Jewish and Christian holy sites. Jack and Jadis' adopted son Tom and another of their students, Shoshana Levinson (who has become Tom's lover), are visiting in Israel at this time, and so is Cardinal Domingo Sanchopanza de Orellazana ("...but all my friends just call me Pongo"). He is a close advisor to the Pope, and as well as being a priest was also an anthropologist, and he had worked on the French dig both before and during the time he was parish priest in nearby Saint Rogatien. It is not clear whether the Pope had been another target of the Khalifa, and even if so, he succumbs to a mysterious malady first, but I'm not going to try to explain that since it is still quite a mystery, and possibly alien in origin. Whatever it is has also struck millions, maybe billions, of others throughout the world, although there are regions less affected than others, including the area around the dig in France. Tom, Shoshana and Domingo are able to make it back there, but the fate of Avi and Rivka is in question.
Aside from Jadis, Domingo is my favorite character. I'm non-religious myself, but thoughts of a spiritual nature are on my mind just as much as those of science, and it is refreshing for a man of God to be depicted in a very positive way rather than in ridicule. Domingo is so full of life; he's a giant of a man, fond of food and drink, rock music and bright Hawaiian shirts, always upbeat and inspiring to all who know him. He always seems to know the right thing to say or do in any situation to bring comfort to others. One of his major accomplishments as advisor to the Pope had been the drafting of a decree which acknowledged that all the emerging species were part of the human family, mainly because they are self-aware and have a concept of God. That decree comes back to haunt him though, since many people believe it is these species which have brought the mysterious plague to mankind. I don't think they are right, but I won't know until the next book.
As happened in the first book, with historical names and places used by ancient "peoples," there is a section in Scourge that identifies several geographical regions by the same names we use. Since the books are written in third person, it could mean that the narrator is just using familiar names so that the reader understands where the action is taking place rather than those being the actual names used by the book's characters. The merchant Khorare, in approximately 123,000 BC, travels on a sailing vessel through the Straits of Hormuz and his destination is Dilmun, which is a region on the island of Bahrain in modern times. He is a dealer in textiles, and his home port is the Very Great and Ancient City of Axandragór. There is no modern equivalent city name, but since India has long been known for its textile industries and his journey takes him across the Indian Ocean and into the Persian Gulf, it could be that his city is modern day Ahmedabad. His story is left hanging here, so I anticipate learning more about him and his fate in the third book. He does have an encounter with a woman who must be a manifestation of Merlin, but we have yet to learn what she has planned for him, as well as what her intentions have been during her numerous interactions with other species on Earth.
Book 3: Rage of Stars
Unfortunately, the majority of what follows will include spoilers for the entire trilogy.
The first two books, in spite of a few minor problems, were well-written, with engaging characters and thought-provoking ideas. The third is not. It's the longest of the three, and yet it feels the most rushed, and I suspect the whole trilogy was edited down from much longer texts. We're left to surmise quite a few things on our own, most especially the origin of the sigil. I had anticipated reading about further actions taken by Ruxhana Fengen Kraa after he was last seen in the first book, but that never happened. I'm not sure if the sigil was something created by Merlin or whether Kraa found it on an alien planet during his space voyage. Two things that do seem clear now; Kraa was essentially immortal, being reincarnated into different bodies in subesquent eras, and that Merlin guided him on his mission through the years. That leaves the question, who was the embodiment of Kraa during the actions in the near future after Ruxton Carr?
Jack Corstophine met Carr on only one occasion. Jadis did not accompany him on that visit in Colorado, and Carr died(?) shortly thereafter. The most likely candidate for the next incarnation is Jack and Jadis' adopted son Tom, or if it is possible for Kraa's spirit to reside in two bodies at once, then another possibility would be Domingo, their longtime friend and colleague, who had been elevated to Pope after the events in Israel in the second book. He was approximately the same age as Jack and Jadis, so would have been alive at the same time as Carr. My original declaration that Jadis Markham was an embodiment of Merlin was not just speculation, but rather several very specific comments about her, as well as things she said or did, seemed to make that clear. During the second book I began to doubt that, then the third shifted those thoughts back to the original assumption. On more than one occasion, Merlin and her other selves are described in much the same way as Jadis, and in one scene with Khorare, as Merlin changes her appearance, she is described much as Jadis appeared to Jack when they first met, particularly her clothing. It is true that Jadis acted completely different with Jack, Tom and Domingo than Merlin and her other incarnations had done with Kraa, Khorare and Carr, and likely with many others through the years that we never read about. It is possible that is because Jadis realized the end of her mission was at hand, and she merely had to keep Jack on track in his explorations so that the sigil would be uncovered.
The major negatives in Rage revolve around two historical accounts; Khorare's travails in the Middle East, across the Mediterranean Sea and into what is now modern-day France, along with the story of Dogfinger, apparently among the first of modern homo sapiens, leaving Africa and traveling to the area around Mount Carmel, which is the location of the city discovered by Avi Malkeinu in Israel. In both segments there are repeated usages of modern phrases and colloquialisms. I realize none of these ancient peoples spoke English, and it is necessary to relate their stories in language we understand, but Gee should have made more of an effort for their speech patterns to be unique from ours. Even if we conceed the fact that other species could have developed advanced civilizations long before modern man, I think it likely their modes of transportation and their architecture would be quite different from ours. Gee describes too many of the places and things Khorare encounters as if they are out of 19th Century Britain rather than a Neaderthal culture of 125,000 years ago. One of the reasons I suspect Domingo might be the last incarnation of Kraa is that the ship that Khorare takes from the eastern Mediterranean area to Massilia (modern-day Marseille) is named Exile on Main Street. Domingo is a huge fan of The Rolling Stones. Such "in jokes" are completely out of place, even if they are meant as clues.
Khorare is in possession of the sigil, and from Massilia he travels northwest to the Great Pyramid of Xxántroghátrem. No, that is not the pyramid discovered near Saint Rogatien by Jack and Jadis in 2032. That one was underground, whereas Xxántroghátrem was nearby...on the surface. It's one thing for Gee to want us to accept long lost civilizations developed by non-human species (Kraa's race supposedly evolved from a lemur-like animal), quite another to believe a giant pyramid, several times the size of the underground one discovered in our future, and surrounded by a huge, bustling city, left no traces at all. Another puzzler: other than the sigil, no other artifact or glyph was discovered by Jack, just the pyramid and other structures surrounding it. No markers for them to identify its origin in any way. Xxántroghátrem, Massilia and the Kingdom Under the Mountain (Mount Carmel) were all built by the "Stoners" (Neanderthals). Was the underground pyramid and the sigil built by Merlin and her compatriots, or by aliens, or some other unidentified Earth culture? I've absolutely no idea, and the way the trilogy ended I am sure Gee will not be writing any more in this story. Another negative for me is the descriptions of the brutal nature of Dogfinger's life, as well as the life in the Kingdom Under the Mountain, both in the time of Khorare's residence there as well as 80,000 years later just before Dogfinger's arrival. It wasn't necessary for Gee to use such graphic depictions of fighting, pillaging, rape and cannibalism. Just the suggestion of such actions would have been enough, and that goes for a few sex scenes between Ruxhana and Xalomé in the first book and Tom and another female in the third. I'm not a prude, but I do believe that less can be more if you let your readers use their own imagination.
In summation, the story started out with a lot of promise, but devolved into a fantastical mess. Another uncertainty is if the sigil was the cause of the plague, and if so, how, and who created it? If it was Merlin, it seems a roundabout way of accomplishing the task, and a waste of 55 million years, but I've spoiled things enough so I won't explore that any further. The depiction of Dogfinger's life is probably as authentic as possible, other than in the way he and other characters spoke. Gee does get the timelines correct, as far as when homo sapiens ascended and the Neanderthal culture declined, but the way the pinnacle of Neanderthal life was described, as well as any other culture previous to that, was total fabrication. He is also correct in his statement that there are people living today who have a percentage of Neanderthal DNA in their genome sequence. It might have been a mistake not to read this trilogy all together in one go, and if I do ever re-read it I will do that, but it's possible I won't because I felt the conclusion was not worth the effort of that many pages. Others may feel differently though. There are still a few gems of ideas here and there, mostly in the words of Domingo concerning love and devotion to a cause, along with one thing Merlin told Khorare when he asked what he could possibly do to make the world a better place.
"Random acts of kindness mostly. It's a brutal world out there. It doesn't need much to make a difference."
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