Requiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney

jdb_requiemfRequiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1990)
Review by Ian Sales

Five years after The Children of Anthi (see here), Jay D Blakeney returned to the world of Ruantl with a sequel. There was nothing in that first novel which required another book and indeed while Requiem for Anthi does reveal more of the world, its plot is a follow-on rather than a consequence. As Requiem for Anthi opens, civil war among the Tlar houses rages across Ruantl. During the events of The Children of Anthi, Omari/Asan had switched off Anthi and now the lack of the life-support computer has very much worsened the situation of the Tlar’n – their capital city, Altian, is mostly in ruins, they have no electricity or working technological devices, and food is in short supply.

Asan’s putative mate, Aural, is now his enemy and she has allied herself with the Galactic Space Institute. She invites them to the world to help her, but the GSI, of course, wants the mineral wealth of Ruantl for itself and plans to subdue the locals and take control of the entire planet. The first hurdle they must overcome is Asan. Which proves surprisingly easy – Asan continues to be as ineffective a protagonist in Requiem for Anthi as he was in The Children of Anthi. In short order, he is a prisoner on a GSI destroyer, tortured for information while they are en route to Central. Also captured was Zaula, the mate of the Tlar’n ruler Hihuan who Asan killed at the end of the earlier book. She has no psychic powers – ie, rings – to speak of, is smaller than is typical for Tlar’n, but very beautiful – and, of course, Asan responds to her vulnerability and beauty. This is in contrast to Aural, who is also very beautiful – although similar in stature to Asan; but Aural is also powerful and arrogant and ambitious.

The GSI destroyer, however, is waylaid by pirates before it can reach Central. And it transpires that these pirates are in the pay of galactic gang lord Martok. Who employed the vat-born boy, Tobei, who became Blaise Omari and was later transformed into Asan. But Tobei was not willingly let go by Martok, who has hunted him ever since. But even the transformation to a Tlartantlan proves no disguise, as a “thwart” had been placed in Tobei’s subconscious and this is detectable. So Asan comes clean as to his real identity and attempts to save his skin by promising the mineral riches of Ruantl to Martok. (While privately he’s determined to save the planet for the Tlar and Bban, he has so little effect on events that he can only swap one invader for another.)

Then an old friend from Asan’s days as Tobei – who, of course, believes that Asan was Tobei (he was, but it’s still believed a little too readily) – helps Asan and Zaula escape Martok. Asan has learnt more of his past and that of the Tlartantlans, and he has determined on a course of action that will save Ruantl from the depredations of the GSI or Martok: he will call the Merderai. In The Children of Anthi, “Merderai” was an invented swear-word. But it actually proves to be the name of Asan’s personal army from the days of Tlartantla. It proved so effective a force that, like King Arthur’s fabled knights, it was hidden away sleeping until needed again. There are also hints that it was too effective and instrumental in the destruction of the Tlartantlan empire…

Blakeney hands Asan his deus ex machina on a platter, then whips it away… only for it to do the necessary in the last few pages. In that respect, Requiem for Anthi‘s plot is much like The Children of Anthi‘s. And Asan is remains mostly ineffective, even though he is the protagonist and saves the day, in both books. While much of the second book’s story takes place off Ruantl, Blakeney does reveal more of the world’s and its peoples’ history. Again, it’s there, in the world-building, where the Anthi books “arouse interest” (as the SF Encyclopedia has it). Asan, the protagonist, is a cliché, the gutter-rat made good, who learns nobility when a noble purpose is thrust upon him. He’s a staple of science fiction – as are the chief female characters, Aural and Zaula, both of whom harken back to the princesses of Barsoom. The secret behind Ruantl, and its relationship with Tlartantla, provides an interesting twist, but the two books rely a little too heavily on science fiction’s inexplicable liking for feudalism, and such stories’ reliance on hand-wavy science and technology, to stand out much above other similar midlist sf novels.

Amusingly, one of the more annoying archaisms in The Children of Anthi was the use of “thou” and “thee” in formal speech. Someone must have told Blakeney she had this back-to-front, because Asan remarks to Zaula at one point:

“Did you know, Zaula, that in the old days of human history they considered ‘thou’ a familiar usage and ‘you’ the formal one? Just the reverse of the Tlar way.” (p 120)

The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney

childrenanthiThe Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

US author Deborah A Chester began her sf career as Jay D Blakeney, writing four novels between 1985 and 1990, before then adopting the pseudonym Sean Dalton for two sf series, and finally using her own name from 1996 onwards. The four Blakeney novel began with The Children of Anthi, the first of a diptych that was completed in 1990 with Requiem for Anthi. The other two novels are The Omcri Matrix (see here), set in the same universe but is unrelated, and The Goda War (see here), set in an entirely different universe.

The SF Encyclopedia describes the two Anthi novels as arousing “some interest. It is a far-reaching and moderately complex vision of humanity’s future Evolution”. The cover to The Children of Anthi also boasts the puff “In the grand tradition of Dune… an epic of adventure and survival on a dying world”. And it’s true there’s a similar flavour in the Anthi books to Herbert’s magnum opus, although there are no obvious borrowings as there are in Blakeney’s The Omcri Matrix and The Goda War.

Blaise Omari is a crewman aboard a Galactic Space Institute scoutship. Except he’s not – he’s actually an escaped vat-born slave under an assumed identity. And when that identity comes under scrutiny, he hijacks the scoutship and makes a run for the Uncharted Zone. But the first planet he comes across orbits a black hole, and this causes the ship to crash. Only Omari and fellow crewmember Saunders survive. They are captured by masked natives, who seem to have some sort of post-technological semi-feudal militaristic society. Although the races of Ruantl – as Omari learns the planet is called – are humanoid, they are not human: the Bban have:

Hammered plates of thick scarred skin formed the rough planes of that hairless oblong face. The eyes glowed yellow in twin lights of phosphorous above a nose that was but a slit of bone and cartilage. Double-hinged and powerful, the lower jaw was similar in design to an insect’s mandible. (p 29)

The Bban’s rulers, the Tlar, however, are eight feet tall, golden-skinned and attractive. Everyone wears masks – partly as protection against the radiation from the black hole, but also as part of their culture, since only certain sectors of the society can look upon other defined sectors’ naked faces. Omari and Saunders have appeared on Ruantl just as a civil war is about to kick off. The high priest Picyt, who is the Tlar who captures the pair, is about to rebel against the cruel and arrogant Tlar “leiil” (ie, ruler) Hihuan. To do this, he needs an ancient hero, Asan, who has been kept in stasis, with three other ancient heroes, to be awoken. But the awakening process requires a mind as a catalyst, a mind that won’t survive the awakening process. Picyt intends to use Omari, although he does not let on that Omari will die, telling him only that he will be transformed into a Tlar. Even though Omari is on the run, he refuses Picyt’s proposal… At least until he is taken by Hihuan, who leaves him to die in Ruantl’s toxic desert. When he is eventually rescued by Picyt’s forces, Omari reluctantly agrees to be transformed into Asan.

However, the awakening process doesn’t go as planned – Omari survives, and it is Asan’s consciousness that is destroyed. This shouldn’t have happened – since Omari is vat-born he shouldn’t have a soul (a piece of weirdness in the novel which never quite makes sense); so plainly he wasn’t vat-born after all, just enslaved as a baby if he had been. Omari-as-Asan also learns that Anthi, the goddess worshipped by the inhabitants of Ruantl, is actually a sentient computer, responsible for life-support in the Tlar city of Altian and all the Tlar settlements outside the city, and also the care and attention of 800 ancient Tlar held in stasis. The Tlar, it seems, were once the Tlartantla and Ruantl was a colony world. But the Tlartantlan empire fell and now, thousands of years later, the Tlar are all that remain. As Asan, Omari also learns that the four ancient heroes are the only Tlarantlan survivors – the 800 stasis pods are empty. But he does manage to unite the Bban tribes for an attack on Altian to depose leill Hihuan. After several battles, Asan and Hihuan meet in single combat, and Asan kills the leiil.

The plot is a little more complex than the above summary suggests – Picyt’s motives, for example, are far from noble; and Saunders is used as a catalyst to awaken another of the ancient heroes, Aural, Asan’s mate, but Saunders does not survive the process. Saunders only agrees to the “transformation” because Aural is beautiful and she wants to be beautiful – a motivation which very much strikes a wrong note in a character that had up until that point been notable for her competence and the fact the narrative treated her exactly the same as Omari. But all of the women on Ruantl occupy very much traditional roles – they are consorts and wives and mistresses and serving women. Asan even falls in love with a Henan serving woman (a Henan is the product of a Bban parent and a Tlar parent). She is, of course, beautiful.

And yet, for all The Children of Anthi‘s heartland sf gender politics, Blakeney has managed some interesting world-building. The Galactic Space Institute and the polity in which it operates is pretty much a standard space opera setting, but Ruantl itself is quite imaginative. Perhaps it does owe a debt to Dune, with its harsh landscape and the way in which that has shaped the peoples of the planet, with its under-trodden Bban and noble Tlar, who are not only physically beautiful and strong but arrogant as well, and the hero Asan who unites the Bban to fight the Tlar…  But there’s more going on in the history of Ruantl than initially meets the eye – and some of it is not even explained until the sequel, Requiem for Anthi – and that lends the book a flavour all its own. Omari is, it must be said, a bit useless as a protagonist, often wrong-footed by his enemies, spending much of his time either imprisoned or injured, often reacting more to events or plans that have misfired than actively driving the plot… The prose is solid, although the construction “was but” appears annoyingly often, and the attempts at archaic phraseology (used to indicate the great age of Tlar’n culture) fall flat more often than not.

Much as I like the two Anthi books, I think the SF Encyclopedia was being generous to them – and their plot summary bears no resemblance to the actual story. The Tlar are not related to humanity, nor are they “guided by the eponymous AI, into a form that is half-flesh and half-electronics”. The Tlar have powers – referred to throughout as “rings” – which give them telepathic and telekinetic powers; and they can “seizert”, or teleport. While mentally linked to Anthi, these powers are much stronger – especially Asan’s, as he is Tlartantlan, not a debased Tlar’n. The Children of Anthi is a fun if undemanding read of no real meaning or importance. It’s a solid example of science fiction’s workmanlike midlist, and no more and no less worth reading than any other such book. If you like this sort of thing, you will like The Children of Anthi. But it comes as no real surprise that the book was never reprinted nor nominated for any awards – something which it has in common with the vast majority of sf novels.

The Omcri Matrix, Jay D Blakeney

The Omcri Matrix, Jay D Blakeney (1987)
Review by Ian Sales

Costa is a lieutenant in Playworld’s Planetary Patrol, and its “smartest, toughest and most ambitious officer”, as the blurb has it. She is also an adapt, a which means she has been genetically engineered to possess improved hearing, eyesight, sense of smell, endurance and strength. Her dream is to join the Rangers, the elite combat force operated by the galaxy’s Fleet. But the Playworld Directory won’t release her from her contract.

Understandably upset at being forced to remain on Playworld – its name indicates its role in galactic affairs – Costa decides to dial back her commitment to her job. She has been assigned as leader of protection detail for a visiting dignitary, the Kublai of the United Worlds of Drugh, who is visiting the ruined Kanta temple complex on the northern continent for religious reasons. Before the Kublai’s arrival, Costa visits the Beros bazaar, and is accosted by an Omcri. These are formless creatures of darkness in hooded cloaks, feared and hated by all, who can be hired as couriers and assassins. Their origin is a mystery. The Omcri tries to bribe Costa into betraying the Kublai, but she refuses. So it “poisons” her. Unfortunately, she has no opportunity to inform her commander before the Kublai arrives and the extended party heads out to the temple complex in the jungle.

Where it is ambushed a few days later. The Kublai is abducted by persons unknown. Of the rest of the party, only Costa survives. As does the injured Ranger, secretly held in a stasis box, which the Kublai had intended to sacrifice to his god, Kanta. When Costa contacts her commander, she is immediately accused of betraying the Kublai and branded a traitor. She and the Ranger must cross the jungle to the coast, and on an island there find some way for the Ranger to contact his corps.

It turns out the Omcri are more than they appear. They are advance scouts for an evil civilisation from another galaxy – or dimension; The Omcri Matrix is not entirely clear on this point – which intends to take over Costa’s galaxy. And Costa, it seems, is the only person ever to overcome the Omcri “poison” – actually a means of taking control of the person so poisoned. And so she must battle the creatures who control the Omcri and save herself, the Ranger, her colleagues, Playworld, and the galaxy. There is, incidentally, no matrix in the Omcri’s galaxy/dimension.

There is little in The Omcri Matrix which is especially original. Throughout there are small hints that Dune provided much inspiration, though the story itself bears little or no resemblance to Frank Herbert’s novel. Costa, for example, was born among a desert people, whose culture hints at Arabic culture. Their houses are called sieghr (cf the Fremen sietch), they are polygamous, and their sense of hospitality and honour resembles that of romanticised Bedouins. Which is strange, because though Playworld’s only city, Beros, seems like some North African city, much of the planet is jungle and there are extensive oceans.

The story is structured around two conspiracies – one constrained to Playworld, and one pan-galactic. The villain of the first piece, who rejoices in the name of Wob Nogales, is an obese hedonist – shades of Baron Harkonnen? The creature which controls the Omcri, however, is far from human. As one conspiracy is resolved, so its solution catapults Costa and her Ranger friend, Haufren, into the next.

The prose is transparent – ie, readable, but adds nothing to the reading experience. There are a lot of made-up alien words, mostly referring to Playworld’s flora and fauna, and not all of which are pronounceable – eg, juujb. Flin is used throughout as a swearword, though some of the other oaths probably should have been reconsidered: “I don’t want a crew of shin-nicked Fleeters in here on my planet any more than you do.” (So in this intergalactic future, cutting a notch in a person’s lower-leg is considered an insult?) There doesn’t appear to be much logic in the use of neologisms – for example:

Yulies was their word for the rich people who flocked to Playworld for a few weeks of idleness. (p 9)

This is the only time the term yulies is used in the story… which does make you wonder why Blakeney bothered to include it. To paraphrase Chekov, if there’s a smeerp in the first act, it needs to have some narrative impact by the third act.

Costa’s commander and colleagues are a little too quick to consider her a traitor, and their refusal to allow her an explanation smacks of idiot plotting. The universe beyond Playworld is only hinted at – in fact, it’s not even clear whose Fleet the Rangers belong to; and mentions of a Galactic Space Institute are never explained. Playworld itself seems little more than a room full of used furniture. The Omcri, for example, reminded me of Grannis from van Vogt’s The Universe Maker; and also the cover art to Philip Jose Farmer’s The Unreasoning Mask.

Put simply, The Omcri Matrix is sf brain-candy. It’s a fun read for a wet afternoon and nothing else.

The Goda War, Jay D Blakeney

The Goda War, Jay D Blakeney (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

Jay D Blakeney is a pseudonym of Deborah Chester, who has also written a YA series under the name Sean Dalton. The Goda War, a space opera, is Chester’s penultimate novel as Blakeney. According to The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, Blakeney “seemed to be a writer to watch with some interest”, and while it’s certainly true that her Anthi novels – The Children of Anthi (1985) and Requiem for Anthi (1990) – are much under-appreciated sf novels, the same can’t be said of The Goda War.

Brock is a dire-lord of the Held. This means he is the personal bodyguard of the Held’s suprin. He is a Sedkethran, a humanoid with the ability to flick (teleport) and phase in and out of dimensions. Sedkethrans also possess telepathic powers, though they are strongest with members of their own race. Brock is something of a maverick Sedkethran – the rest of his race are pacifists and dedicated to healing. Brock is a warrior, and so an outcast.

The Held has been conquered by the Imish (known by the Held as the Colonids). The Held is an empire but it’s a liberal one, comprised of many races living in a tolerant society. The Imish are old-style humans, the descendants of a group who refused to accept equality with aliens and so were banished from the Held. For centuries they have been kept in place by the threat of the godas, a trio of planet-sized war machines hidden somewhere within the Held.

But no more. The Imish have defeated the Held. Brock flicks himself and the suprin from the Held flagship seconds before it is destroyed, but the suprin is wounded and dying. With his last breath, the suprin makes Brock his heir and gives him the key to the godas, which is in the form of a bracelet. Later, Brock is captured by the Imish, who, it transpires, were assisted by the suprin’s traitorous heir.

With the assistance of an alien, Rho, a Slathese, and another Sedkethran, Ellisne, a Healer, Brock escapes and sets off to activate one of the godas. He is chased by Colonel Kezi Falmah-Al of the Imish, the security chief of the Imish governor of the captured Held capital world. But nothing is quite as simple as it appears – Goda Primary proves to be the Sedkethrans’ home world, and activating it would strip the planet of its atmosphere and kill its entire population. Falmah-Al also hates her boss, and is determined to use the godas to further her own ends.

The Goda War is as close to heartland space opera as it is possible for a story to reside. It has all the signs: an interstellar empire, which is just enough off-kilter to be alien without drifting too far from the human model; neologisms where perfectly good English words exist (e.g., suprin = emperor); magical technology – not to mention Brock’s own magical powers; an abundance of huge spaceships; and a climax in which the entire galaxy is at stake.

Yet for all its adherence to the form, The Goda War manages to ring a few interesting changes. The Held is a surprisingly liberal society, and lauded as such. In fact, it is the threat of the Imish’s near-fascist society which Brock uses to compel his people to eventually overcome their pacifism. It’s not often that sf novels paint humans as the bad guys, or in such stark terms. Falmah-Al makes for a good villain, especially since she is initially sympathetic and only reveals her true colours in the last quarter of the novel.

Admittedly, Brock is a typical space opera hero, anguished and possessing great privilege. And the Sedkethrans read a little too much like some super-powerful race from Star Trek, one which has deliberately limited itself through some arbitrary and easily-broken set of rules. Certain parts of The Goda War also appear to have been inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune. At one point, Blakeney gives Brock a form of prescience, in which he sees a number of possible futures. The idea is a later dropped and mentioned only in passing near the end of the novel.

The Goda War is, quite frankly, space opera mind-candy. The prose is eminently readable without actually standing out. Brock and Ellisne are little too melodramatic to really appeal as characters, though other members of the cast are better-drawn. The background is mostly identikit space opera but is enlivened by one or two good ideas. And the story-arc is neither innovative nor experimental, but comfortingly predictable. The Goda War is a novel that would make a rainy afternoon pass entertainingly, but it’s never going to win any awards and it’s never going to be remembered as anything special. It’s a shame Blakeney did not continue her career. Perhaps she would have later produced something to rival, or even exceed, her Anthi novels.