The Cry of the Newborn: The Ascendants of Estorea Book 1 (Gollancz S.F.)
by James Barclay
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 057507812X
Date: 14 September, 2006 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Outside of fantasy fiction, it seems to me that there are not many groups of readers who would be happy to plough through a 900 page novel. There are doubtless exceptions to this - certainly the literary mainstream has produced many fat books in its time, but one doesn't see crime or romance novels requiring twelve deciduous forests to produce a single volume. Indeed it's a risky venture for any writer to turn in such a lengthy manuscript. Immediately they rob themselves of those readers who don't want to carry anything so heavy with them on the train to work - even in paperback, some books are just not practically portable. And there are many potential readers who will just be frightened off and intimated by the sheer size of such a book. US Publishers have responded to the needs of these reader by splitting novels into sections – Mary Gentle's humongous work Ash: A Secret History was released in, I think, four separate editions. Likewise, the granddaddy of fat SF, Peter F. Hamilton had the various novels of his gargantuan Nights Dawn Trilogy broken into smaller volumes. These two novels – on my bookshelves at least, are the page-count record holders. After them comes the third title in Neal Stephenson's massive Baroque Cycle, The System of the World, weighing in at 892 pages, and hard on the heels of that, at 889 pages is James Barclay's brand new novel The Cry of the Newborn.
Barclay is well known to readers as the author of the excellent Raven novels, two trilogies telling of the adventures of a kick-ass band of fantasy mercenaries who have a habit of saving the world. These are gung-ho books, full of energy and vigour and have earned the author much acclaim and a wonderful quote from SFX describing Barclay as "The Sergio Leone of the genre" - I wish I'd thought of that! Whereas, however, any number of authors would stick to such a successful formula, simply churning out Raven-type novels for their entire career, Cry of the Newborn has Barclay entering a new phase of his career, upping the stakes, reaching further than he ever has before and offering readers a novel of staggering scope and such skilful storytelling that I honestly could have happily read on for another 900 pages.
The setting of Cry of the Newborn broadly parallels that of the Roman Empire in its heyday. The Conquord, under the leadership of its Advocate, Herine Del Aglios, rules a vast area of the known world, her armies gathering new countries into her empire in a ongoing series of campaigns and conquests lasting years. Being part of The Conquord brings with it many benefits – not least the protection it affords its citizens – but there are also new customs and fashions that must be adopted and new beliefs too. In this we must acknowledge the downside of what it means to be part of The Conquord, for this is a society fiercely proud of its religious heritage, and The Order, as their church is known, works hard to stamp out the old faiths of its conquered territories and is quick to label any continued practice a heresy. There is also the matter of taxation – to accept the benefits of The Conquord, one must also pay a price for them. It falls to the tax collectors of The Conquord, the Gatherers, under the command of the Exchequer Paul Jhered to travel the length and breadth of the empire making sure that each territory pays its way. The Gatherers, and Jhered in particular are feared and respected in equal measure – they are a necessary evil, rigid and unapologetically forceful in their approach.
At the start of Barclay's novel, this ordered world works well and has done for centuries. But not one to be content to rest on her laurels, the Advocate continues to pursue her expansionist agenda, but there are rumblings in the Senate and signs in outlying areas that the Conquord maybe stretching itself too thin. In these outlying territories, once taxes have been paid in to coffers of Estorea, the local Marshals find they have few resources with which to defend their borders and with bulk of the Conquord armies moved away to man the main battle fronts, they are feeling sorely neglected. Dissent is beginning to brew.
There are still pockets of relative peace though in much of The Conquord lands. One such haven is Westfallen and it is here that there is, very quietly, something starting that will mark a turning point in history. A group known as the Echelon have, for long years, devoted themselves to the Ascendancy – not strictly a religion or a philosophy but something with very definite elements of both. After years of study and selective breeding, four children have been born, children who display powers and abilities the like of which have never been seen before in the world. The four can harness the powers of nature and manipulate the elements and though, at first, their talents are raw and unrefined, under the benevolent guidance of the Echelon, they grow more potent with each passing year.
In Cry of the Newborn, Barclay focuses then on what it means to have magic come to a world which has never before experienced it. We see its arrival greeted with wonder and fear, with greed and suspicion. The powers of the four children cannot be kept hidden in Westfallen forever and eventually word of them reaches the Capital. The Advocate dispatches investigators to study this new phenomenon, amongst them Exchequer Paul Jhered. The very existence of such magic goes against the religious beliefs of the Conquord, but Jhered recognizes both the human face (they are but children, after all) and the huge potential in what he finds. But there are others in the Conquord not so able to assimilate these Ascendants into their world view and an Inquisition soon reaches Westfallen with devastating results. The Echelon are declared heretic and the children are forced into exile.
Elsewhere the Conquord have experienced a disastrous turn-around in their war with the Kingdom of Tsard and for the first time in their history, they face the very real threat of invasion. It falls to Exchequer Jhered to locate the fleeing Ascendent children and find some way to use them to turn the tide that threatens to destroy The Conquord.
This is big book that tells a very big story indeed - and in the way of behemoths, it takes a little time to gather momentum. Thus, at the start it winds up quite slowly as Barclay carefully lays down for us the framework of his detailed and very believable world, but as you read on, the sheer force of story becomes unstoppable and you quickly forget what a big book you're dealing with. The pace and scope of the story stays with you throughout – there's no need to skim sections through sections here – you want to savour every moment. The Conquord is a wonderfully detailed society and, as in The Raven books, all Barclay's characters are enormously engaging throughout. The children are particularly interesting, the dynamics within their little grouping sensitively drawn and their path, as they discover exactly what it is they can do, is an exciting one to follow.
The battle scenes are relentless and expertly depicted, both in terms of tactical overview and the grim onslaught of hand to hand combat and it is a major achievement to have so many fight scenes in a novel and not have them simply seem repetitive. Indeed taken as a whole, Cry of the Newborn is a major achievement all round and one that sees James Barclay well on his way to becoming a very big name indeed in fantasy – perhaps even as big as his books!
Appealing and sensitively written, The Cry of the Newborn is well worth the time it requires from you to read it.