Author: Ginn Hale
Original Pub. Date: 2011
It's rare that anything surprises me in a book. Even the foulest depths of almost incomprehensible human depravity, e.g. Nights in Rodanthe, leave me shrugging in utter belief. Now and again, though, an author pulls it off, and this week that author is Ginn Hale, who did something with her serialized novel The Rifter* that I haven't seen in a while: she had an original goddamn idea. Strike that. She had several, and I'm still reeling and popping nitroglycerin pills.
I was considering writing this review as a Literary Showdown versus my last victim (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), but that seemed a little unfair; The Rifter is so much better than the other that it would be like putting a sedated long-eared bunny rabbit in the ring with Mike Tyson. There are some thematic similarities that make the comparison worthwhile, though.
Both The Hundred Thousand Political Action Messages and The Rifter use the same mythological underpinnings: the physical creation of the world out of the actual substance of gods. In the former, the gods accomplish this by having sex with their siblings in various grotesque ways; in The Rifter, it's more of a classic "the god lay down and his flesh became the world" sort of scenario.** (Three guesses which I find more appealing.) It's not entirely clear whether our world (present-day Earth) and the world in which The Rifter takes place are made from the same god-stuff, but they are definitely connected by a sort of dimensional gate (my lame term, not Hale's). The gate opens using a key made from a bone of the last holy Rifter, a religious figure in the other world who's basically a sentient amputated limb of the living flesh of the world-god.
The religious order of this other world periodically designates a new Rifter, who is then pulled from our world and used as a threat to hold over everyone else to maintain the religion's power; the Rifter is capable of completely destroying the world, and in fact that is his primary function as the destructive incarnation of the god. Once the Rifter does his (or sometimes her) thing, he dies and one of his bones becomes the next powerful relic. The really fun part is that the destruction of part of the world and the destruction of the Rifter aren't cause and effect the way you'd think. The Rifter is physically a limb of the living world, and exploding a person's foot, to translate the idea, would cause shock, blood loss, gangrene, and a whole lot of other problems in addition to the trauma.
The novel focuses on John, the designated Rifter-in-reserve. When the story opens in our world, he's a normal guy with a weird tattooed roommate who's actually the Kahlil, an other-world sorcerer-monk assigned to keep an eye on him and bring him home to rip the world apart when/if necessary, and to kill him if not. John and two of his friends accidentally go through the gate and land in crazy-world, nearly dying in the process in about ten different ways. Fun catch to this this type of travel: somewhat like the doorways to Narnia, this gate opens anytime it damn pleases within the lifetimes of the current Rifter and Kahlil. John arrives about ten years before Kahlil becomes John's roommate in the first place; Kahlil follows, but he gets tossed forward another twenty years or so, without his memories or tattoos and with one hell of a headache.
With a solid skill that makes me think she used to be a Stargate script writer***, Hale manages to knit these unraveled timelines together, switching back and forth between times and character viewpoints in a way that ought to have that hack George R.R. Martin twitching with envy. John meets Kahlil's younger self, setting the latter's timeline awry; Kahlil eventually catches up with John's much older self, figuring out what happened and didn't happen to him in the meantime. Their mission: save the world and each other.
It's gloriously pulpy. Anyone who claims to read science fiction and fantasy for the high-minded ideals and meticulously plausible scientific concepts is just the sort of asshole who says he's going to a strip club for the beer selection.**** We all go for the naked girls, okay? Just like everyone who really appreciates fantasy does so for the sword fights, weird magic, and climactic villain destruction.
The Rifter has all of those, and the weird magic is truly the star. There's magical travel that appears to happen in the complete nothingness between subatomic particles (complete with an interesting reference to moving with and not against the forces holding matter together), bone and blood sorcery that binds life into etched skeletons, and quite a bit more that kept me fascinated throughout.
But what really blew me away was that I have -- ladies and gentleman, brace yourselves
-- never read a work of fiction that uses the world-as-flesh idea quite the way The Rifter does. To make sure I wasn't missing anything, I consulted the best-read expert I know (Hi, Mom!! nice chatting with you) and she hadn't ever read anything like this either outside of mythology.
I'm going to be giving this book a high star rating in a moment, but what would an Indiscriminate Reader review be without the bad news? The names in the other world are cheesy, and they even have some apostrophes. That drove me nuts. For the first three quarters of the story, the timeline-switching kept the suspense high; each move from place to place offered a few more hints about what was really going on in the other, and it was done very skilfully. On the other hand, by the time the last couple of switches happened it had really all been cleared up, and then the pacing started to drag. Since I'm listing all my small quibbles at once, might as well add that I don't like this author's habit of using characters' names when a pronoun or two would unclutter the text in a big way.
Last but not least, let's get one big elephant out of the room. Astute readers may have noticed that the genre in this one's heading isn't just fantasy. It's gay fantasy, specifically published and marketed as such by Blind Eye Books, a small independent press with a distinct niche. Regular readers may remember my review of Lynn Flewelling's The White Road, a fantasy sequel that features gay protagonists, as Blind Eye's books do: protagonists so gay that their sheer gayness overwhelmed anything else that the Nightrunner series had to offer. As the series progressed past the first two very decent books, the characters' sexual orientation began to feel like more and more of a gimmick designed to compensate for the relative blandness and unoriginality of the series overall.
If gay characters are not for you, then they're not. It's not a problem for me; what is are characters who are primarily defined by their sexuality, as I've ranted about before. It cracks me up that The Rifter, a book specifically marketed using and nominally defined by the characters' sexuality, actually contains far less emphasis on the protagonists' orientation and far more extensive character development than either the Nightrunner series or the latest bestselling "literary" fantasy I read.*****
Frankly, I doubt Hale would have a chance in hell at getting her fantasy published by Tor or Baen or even Orbit. This isn't because her characters are too gay for a regular publisher; Spectra (part of Bantam Dell/Random House/evil empire/etc.) published The White Road. It's because Hale's books don't have anyone getting raped by a whip-wielding dragon angel CIA agent with nine mouths and a hot demon sister, or any of the other current horrific trends in what passes for mainstream fantasy, that's why. And good on her.
I have to give this book two ratings: three and a half stars overall, but a clean five in what passes for its genre these days.
* The series, now releasing in a four-part paperback edition, started as a ten-part e-book serial: The Shattered Gates, Servant of the Crossed Arrows, Black Blades, Witches' Blood, The Holy Road, Broken Fortress, Enemies and Shadows, The Silent City, The Iron Temple, and His Holy Bones.
** Granted, many mythologies include gods having vigorous and incestuous sex. Fair enough; does that mean we all want to read about it in detail? Not necessarily.
*** Go watch the SG-1 season eight two-parter finale and tell me I'm wrong if you can.
**** This is always, without exception, the same dude whose favorite Star Trek character is Geordi La Forge.
***** To be fair, this book is a rare exception; many other gay fantasies are gay erotica with swords as an excuse. To be more fair, many straight romance novels (historicals and fantasy) are straight erotica with swords as an excuse. No matter what body parts go where, those books are almost always a waste of time. Reviews to come!