Locklands by Robert Jackson Bennett
In Locklands, Robert Jackson Bennett closes out his FOUNDERS TRILOGY in epic style, raising the stakes to literally “all of creation” and upping his characters’ (some of them) power levels to god-like heights, all while managing to keep the story grounded in the personal thanks to Jackson’s typically sharp characterization. Being the concluding novel, two things should be obvious: one, you need to have read the prior ones and two, there will be inevitable spoilers for those prior books.
Eight years have passed since the events of Shorefall, and they haven’t been good ones for our characters. The sort of collective-AI intelligence Tevanne, thanks to its forcible “twinning” of minds (basically taking its “host” over and making them extensions of its own mind), has been steadily extending its dominion, taking over nation after nation until only two pockets of resistance remain: the free state of Giva, created by our main protagonists from the earlier books (Sancia, Berenice, Clef, etc.); and an area controlled by their other enemy, the uber-powerful hierophant, Crasedes Magnus. Early on though, the Givan group learns that Tevanne has captured Crasedes. Bad enough that Tevanne is now free to bend the full enormity of its power toward them, but even more catastrophic is that Crasedes holds the knowledge of a doorway into “the other side”, a place where one can rewrite, edit, or simply erase all of known creation. Aware of the apocalyptic nature of the threat, Sancia, Clef, and Berenice are forced into ever more desperate ploys to try and defeat their seemingly undefeatable foe.
Plot-wise, as noted, the stakes are raised about as high as is literally possible here. And some of the action mirrors that epic scale, reminding me in an odd way of the old-time SKYLARK OF SPACE / LENSMAN space operas where planets were casually hurled about as weapons of war. We’re not quite at that level here, but we’re also not that far off. As one might expect, though, we don’t start at that level. In a well-orchestrated bit of plotting, we begin with a bang and events gradually step up from there via one major scene/section to the next until they’ve fully escalated to “battle of gods” level. I wouldn’t call the pacing frenetic, but it definitely steadily ramps up (OK, maybe I’d call the latter part of the novel frenetic). Puzzles also become more difficult (and the consequences more severe) as our resistance group is faced with one seemingly unsolvable problem after another).
The grandiose scale of action is nicely counter balanced by Bennett’s close focus on a small group of characters, not only as individuals but as friends, lovers, parents, and more (more on the “more” later). All that epic battling could have distanced readers from the story, but Bennett keeps us carefully grounded thanks to the vivid characterization. Berenice and Sancia’s love story is the most powerful aspect of this, and it would take a heart of stone to not be moved by several of their scenes, particularly, well, one that I won’t detail so as to avoid spoilers, but you’ll know the killer pages when you get to them. But beyond those two we also have the relationship (such as it is) between Clef and Crasedes — filled in and deepened by a series of flashback interludes which again, I won’t say more on so as to avoid spoilers — and several other relationships that receive fewer words but still have some emotional impact.
Intertwined with plot and character are a number of thought-provoking themes/subjects, something I’ve come to expect from Bennett’s novels. The FOUNDERS TRILOGY has always been a “big idea” kind of series, exploring a host of societal questions involving power, capitalism, slavery, the cruelty of humanity, inequality, etc. Here, one of the more fascinating elements is the idea of “twinning minds,” set up as a stark contrast between Tevanne, who forcibly takes over its hosts and the Givans, who freely choose to share thoughts and feelings with each other. Or not. Some stay closed off to others, some share with a small number of people, and others do a kind of mind-melding in larger numbers, forming groups called “cadences,” described as “many twinned people of similar temperament who had grown so close together that they’d aligned into what was, in essence, a singular identity.”
The issue of choice/consent is made explicit several times as we’re introduced to the concept: “No one was forced or compelled to join a cadence . . . People could … break their connection with the cadence and walk away a singular person again … It was quite rare — and those who did walk away often missed the experience and returned.” The benefits are practical and tactical — soldiers who can act as a truly cohesive unit knowing what each other is up to at all times instantaneously — but go beyond that, creating as it’s said, a greater sense of empathy, of compassion, and seemingly doing away (or at least greatly reducing) issues of tribalism. Sancia, for instance, notes how the ship housing Greeter (one of the Cadences), “was always full of people … Tremendous throngs of people. People from all races, all nations, all cultures … The sheer variety of hair alone — in color, in length, in style — was astonishing, let alone the manners of clothing, language, diet, and more.” Later she muses on how it reminds her of “a cathedral . . . brimming with people … always there was the sound of whispering, and confession, and forgiveness, and understanding.” As Greeter succinctly puts it: “We have invented a new way to be human.” Here again, Bennett offers up both a searingly intimate perspective from within the minds of the main characters as well as a grander societal perspective as he zooms out to show the impact such a willing, intentional, purposeful setting aside of individuality might have.
The concept also allows for an interesting juxtaposition in that their twinning, and particularly the super-normal abilities of the Cadences, is what has kept Giva in the fight and allowed for great advances, but this melded-mind power is complemented by the individual decisions and personal attributes of the main characters, and both these aspects involve a willingness to sacrifice, to submerge one’s own singular desires (even for life) for a greater whole. Equally interesting is how much of what has created many of the current problems were born out of individual choices, though I won’t say more on that so as not to give to much away.
Another subject is the use of and reliance on technology (in this case, scriving). Early on Sancia tells Berenice, “One day we will invent a way out of this. We’ll find some key, or tool, or trick … Won’t we?” (Climate change, anyone?). But toward the end, it is Sancia who tells her council: “There is no inventing our way out of this! … We can’t hope to just, just scrive our enemies away! There is no magic fix …” This last line is echoed by several others in the novel: “We thought we could strive our way into liberation … into salvation … trying to follow in the footsteps of clever men with clever fixes” and “It’ll just go on. More fixes gone awry. The mad pride of men who think themselves engineers of all creation.” It doesn’t require much insight to see how this translates into our own world, with our clever technological solutions that breed further problems and prompt more tech to solve those problems, thus creating, well, you know the story.
Here, technology isn’t good or bad in and of itself — it can be a tool for either — but what it is not is a solution. Technology in an immature society, or one governed by tribalism of whatever sort (race, class, gender, etc.), or one where oppression is the rule rather than the exception, will always, will inevitably it seems create as many problems as it solves. If you don’t work on the people, the tools aren’t going to do much good and may do harm. One of the benefits of the mind-meld, then, is the way shared feelings/thoughts create a true empathy that makes it difficult to mistreat or harm or oppress others. And, as one character says, it’s a lot harder to “abhor someone else’s behavior when you also instantly understood why that gone about that behavior to begin with.”
As with the other elements discussed, while the technology or societal themes are large concept, Bennett never lets his novels spin away into the abstract. What drives this novel as much as the technology or the societal ills is the singularly human and oh so individualistic experience of grief and its possibly shattering impact. Though yet again, I’ll leave the details to be discovered by the reader.
My one complaint about Locklands is that it felt too short (believe me, a rare complaint from me). Not that the ending was abrupt (the ending ending in fact was nigh on perfect), but that I wanted more time for some of the characters’ changing relationships and altered views of themselves to be fully explored, and more time for some of the high concepts and their ramification to be considered. But if the biggest complaint is wanting more, that’s a pretty good affirmation of just how excellent this book is, and really the series as a whole, which has its long arcs and continuing thread lines but also feels nicely varied book to book in style, focus, and theme. Given that this trilogy and Bennett’s DIVINE CITIES trilogy are two of my favorite series in the past decade, I can’t wait until the next first book of the next trio…