Darkland review

When hard SF, fantasy and the gothic collide

308 PAGES · £10.99

Author:
Liz Williams

Publisher:
Tor

ISBN:
1-4050-4125-0

Rating: 4/5

For all that novelists, filmmakers and other spinners of yarns might hope otherwise, there’s rarely one pivotal moment that changes everything about their genre. However, if you were to hunt for the moment when British literary science fiction began its long, triumphant and much-needed renaissance, the publication of Iain M Banks’s Consider Phlebas in 1987 would be a good point to start.

It was as if Banks’s epic space opera of the clash between the Idirans and the Culture added a rich, purple, velvet hue to the British science fiction scene. Banks, it seemed, was sending a reminder that science fiction could be as rock’n’roll as, well, rock’n’roll – edgy, moral, vivacious, tough and all manner of other interesting adjectives too. But for all Banks’s undoubted status as an inspirational figure to the British authors who followed, few have the Big Beard’s knack for throwing their readers straight into the action. Yet this ability to establish place, character, plotlines and themes with a few deft sentences is precisely what sets Liz Williams apart from her contemporaries, as the opening pages of Darkland prove.

Within the first eight pages, assassin Vali Hallsdottir is transported to a new world – full of fundamentalist horrors – and captured by the local militia. Within another couple of chapters, she has both killed and been cruelly violated. At the same time, author Liz Williams sets in motion a secondary plotline and establishes an atmosphere of gothic foreboding that runs throughout the novel. A grand total of just 16 pages has elapsed.

The raw statistics, though, are only part of the picture. While the dust jacket soundbites compare Williams to the likes of Margaret Atwood, Sheri Tepper and Ursula Le Guin, Iain M Banks is again a much more apposite comparison. Like Banks, Williams has the enviable ability to imbue her lean and mean prose – prose that stylistically wouldn’t be out of place in a brisk detective novel or a taut airport thriller – with a thematic depth and resonance.

It makes for some harrowing moments. The planet of Nhem is Afghanistan squared, a world ruled by a violent, patriarchal militia. The world is only briefly sketched by Williams, but it’s all too believable, as are the moments when Vali, in reaction to her experiences on Nhem, cuts herself. Few other SF novels this year will explore the relationship between selfharm and sexual politics.

It’s a theme further deepened by the book’s main plot, Vali’s hunt for Frey – a man who was once her lover but subsequently betrayed her and left her for dead, not once but twice. It’s a hunt that takes Vali to the Darkland of the novel’s title and then on to a mysterious tower where the young Ruan lies in thrall to a powercrazed lover.

Much of what follows wouldn’t seem out of place in a horror-cum-fantasy novel as the plot twists and turns (although possibly writhes might be a better description – if only that word didn’t erroneously convey a lack of control of the narrative on Williams’s part) towards a conclusion that’s both a bolt from the blue and yet somehow utterly consistent with what’s gone before.

As with her previous books, Liz Williams is always ambiguous and mysterious, and offers no easy answers to the complex questions she raises about gender, power and how we face up to the traumas of the past. Instead, we’re primarily invited to share Vali’s vivid and dream-like experiences and make of them what we will. It’s undoubtedly a fascinating experience but definitely not for the faint-hearted. A haunting, chilling and state-of-the-art slice of science fiction – this is very dark stuff indeed.

Jonathan Wright

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