Aidan Harte’s debut novel Irenicon is a mostly impressive beginning to his WAVE trilogy; its richly detailed world, tense plot, and subtle mix of science and magic offset some issues of pace, structure, and character sufficiently enough that I plan on continuing right on with its sequel The Warring States, which just arrived last week.
Irenicon is set in a somewhat off-kilter Renaissance Italy, where centuries earlier Herod’s slaughter of children actually worked, killing Jesus Christ as an infant and leaving Mary to become the focal point of a still pervasive but not quite as dominant religion. In this world, Concord, not Rome, rose as the foremost city of a large Empire, and the almost-Catholic Church was supplanted by natural philosophy in a kind of alternate Reformation, led by Girolamo Bernoulli, and his Engineers Guild, who became the dominant force of the Empire. The Guild’s technological advancements keep Concord in power — in particular, one horrible weapon called The Wave. A few decades ago (1347) the Wave was used to subdue a powerful rival city, Rasenna, by blasting the river Irenicon to smash through the center of the city, devastating its core and splitting the city in two.
Even before the deployment of the Wave, Rasenna’s citizens were known for their prickly, violent factionalism, and the bifurcation of the city by the river only made things worse. Now, the only crossings between North and South (difficult to do as there are no bridges spanning the river and the river is inhabited by “buio,” deadly water spirits) are for raiding purposes, to kill other family factions or burn out their towers, even as the non-aristocrats — the “Small People” — suffer.
At the center of the Rasenna fighting are two major families. One, the Bardini, is headed by an old street fighter named Doc, one-time friend to the old Count and now warden of the Count’s granddaughter Sofia Scaligeri, who in a few months time will turn 17 and become the city’s Contessa (if there is a city to inherit). In opposition to the Bardini family are the Morellos, headed by their patriarch Quintus and his two sons Valentino and Gaetano. The former has just returned from his time as ambassador in Concord with a newfound hatred for the Empire, while the latter is a childhood friend of Sofia’s, though their two families place them on opposite sides of the Rasenna rift. Into this mix arrives Giovanni, an Engineer sent by Concord to build a permanent bridge over the Irenicon, and both his person and his task will serve as catalyst for great change and furious violence.
As mentioned, the world building is probably the strongest facet of Irenicon. The city of Rasenna, with its tall tower, old guard families, struggling merchant class, Machiavellian politics, banners as weapons, ineffective leadership council, bitter memories of faded glory, and long-standing hatred of Concord feels fully existent — familiar enough to historical Italy to fascinate in how it is just a little skewed, but original enough in its science and magic (the aforementioned buios, a kind of “water magic” employed by a handful of characters) to be entertainingly original. Most of this comes out organically in small bits and pieces through the course of dialogue and action, meaning readers will have to be patient. The other way we learn about the setting is a bit more cumbersome: short chapters of a fictional History of the Etrurian Peninsula that are interspersed throughout the novel and mostly focus on the rise of Bernoulli and the Engineers Guild. I think this was more an issue of execution than technique, with the chapters being a bit too short and further complicated by frequent footnoting.
Sofia is a strong central character caught between a slew of competing stresses: her love for and obligation to Doc, who has kept her alive until she comes into her age, and her growing realization of just what it took to do so; between the traditional, ingrained violence of vendetta that has been the lifeblood of Rasenna and the possibility of change; between old feelings for Gaetano, new feelings for Giovanni, and their respective roles (btw — to be clear, this is not, I repeat, not, one of those love triangle-driven stories). Her youth plays well into the tension, as a more experienced (or cynical) reader will pick up on the fact that the waters within which she is moving are more murky than she credits.
Doc as well is a nicely complex character, one whom the reader is never quite surefooted with in terms of motivations and means. I actually would have liked to have spent more time in his head. Other side characters have less page time but are still well drawn, such as a pair of merchants, a young intelligent boy named Pedro, an old nun, a few mercenaries. Giovanni, unfortunately for a major player, is more than a little bland, and though he gets a more interesting story at the very end, that doesn’t do anything for the dullness of his character through the first three-quarters or more of the novel.
Some of the craftsmanship reveals a debut novelist at work: transitions between scenes are sometimes abrupt or disorienting, dialogue can be hit or miss, the story definitely lags in several spots (I’d argue the nearly 500-page length is a good 50-100 pages too long), there’s an oddly almost-total absence of non-Sofia/non-nun women, and the ending feels more than a little rushed.
So Irenicon has its definite flaws, but many are the sort that usually improve with writerly experience. Right now, the novel, which ends with some resolution but also lots of questions, is an intriguing if not compelling introduction, and I’ll happily continue on to The Warring States in hopes that the craft issues smooth out.