Fantasy Review Barn
The blurb says that “Enoch’s Device is a fast-paced medieval adventure steeped in history, mythology, and mysteries from a dark and magical past” and the only part I’d argue with is ‘fast-paced’. I found it rather a slow book overall, and although it’s not without plenty of action, there’s also a heavy dollop of the above-mentioned history and mythology. Long and detailed explanations, it has to be said, don’t exactly help the plot to skim along. The setting is Ireland, France and Moorish Spain in the year 997, with the threat of the coming apocalypse when the millennium ends, and a race to prevent disaster for Irish monks Ciarán and Dónall and French aristocrat Alais.
This is historical fantasy at its best - so deeply rooted in its period that to my inexpert eyes it seemed entirely authentic. The weaving together of historical data with biblical references, religious and pseudo-religious details (druids and the zodiac), mythological elements like the Fae and outright fantasy (demons and just a hint of dragons!) is masterfully done, with a wealth of detail, and I had very little idea which aspects were solid fact, which were inference or speculation, and which were invented wholesale. Whether it’s an Irish monastery, the streets of Paris, the rich farmlands of rural France or the Moorish city of Córdoba, the author paints a nuanced and believable picture. Sometimes I felt there was a little too much detail for the needs of the story, as if the author had to squeeze in every colourful bit of his research, but that’s a matter of personal preference.
Where the story really sagged, for me, was the vast amount of backstory that had to be revealed. Sometimes it seemed as if most of the interesting action had happened years before, and was told in flashback. My heart sank every time I came across a paragraph beginning: ‘It seemed as if it were only yesterday when...’ or similar. Despite the drama of these events, it’s still the past and therefore less interesting than the actual story (the journey of Ciarán and Dónall), which seemed very slow by comparison. Worse still, much of the backstory was told in a very dry, text-book style which I struggled to get through. For example:
“She had been born a child of Aquitaine, the richest province in Gaul. Her grandfather was the third William, called Towhead for the pale flaxen color of his hair. He was both count of Poitiers and duke of Aquitaine, and her grandmother was the daughter of Rollo, then duke of Normandy. Her father, Odo, was cousin to the fourth William, called Iron Arm, who had ruled Aquitaine for nearly thirty years. William Iron Arm had strengthened his alliances by marrying his sister to Hugh Capet, the late king of France and father of the current king, Robert, and by arranging his own marriage to Emma, daughter of the count of Blois, who was lord of neighboring Touraine. Alais’ mother, Adelais, too, had been bound in a political marriage— a gift from her father, the count of Toulouse, who was currying favor with the house of Poitiers.”
I’m sure this sort of stuff is endlessly fascinating to some readers, but I was (mentally) tapping my feet and muttering, ‘Yes, yes, but are these people important? Does the colour of his hair matter? And if not, can we get on with the story, please?’.
The characters are well-delineated and mostly believable, the only exception being Alais, the token female, whose role is merely to be rescued periodically, to act as plot device and to inspire and motivate Ciarán as the object of his desire. I wonder how many captivatingly beautiful women have to be captured/almost raped/burnt at the stake before this particular seam of fantasy clichés is finally worked out. Alais spends the book gasping in horror, clinging to Ciarán's hand, or standing frozen with terror as various sharp implements are hurled at her, so that the nearest man has to leap in front of her or drag her out of danger. And finally, the one useful role she seems destined to play is snatched away from her at the last minute. Bleargh. I hate these useless hand-wringing females. There’s a slightly unpleasant tone to the writing sometimes: one character was described as being fond of his wife ‘despite the fact that she had borne him no children’. I get that this is an era when women were subservient by law and custom (the nuns are required to be silent in church, for instance), but there’s no need for that attitude to spill over into authorial voice. As for the bad guys, they are out and out evil, which is par for the course if not particularly interesting.
Fortunately, the plot is nicely convoluted, and once the bulk of the backstory is got out of the way things go along swimmingly. There are puzzles for our heroes to solve, clues to follow, crypic utterances to interpret and symbols to speculate about. There's also a prophecied apocalypse to avoid, and a mysterious device (the 'Enoch's device' of the title) to be discovered, understood and (perhaps) deployed. It’s all hugely detailed and impressively academic-sounding. For example:
“There is a text, the Sefer Yetzirah— the Book of Creation— that tells how Abraham received a divine testimony of mystic lore. He lived long before Moses received the Torah, so he must have received something different. Abraham was the father of Jewish mysticism, much of which focuses on the origins of the many names of God, and the various combinations of sacred letters that make up those names, all in the quest to realize the one great name of God. That is the knowledge that many believe Abraham received. If this knowledge was embodied in a physical object, one theory is that it was a gemstone.”
There’s a lot of this sort of stuff, and it may all be complete tosh, but if so, it’s impressive sounding tosh and I found it quite easy to let it all slide by, mostly way over my head. Sometimes, it has to be said, the interpretations of all these not very obvious puzzles seems a bit glib (if it were that easy, how come no one else has worked it out?) but it still made a nice story as piece after piece fell into place, and our heroes are driven from place to place in their quest. As with the backstory, the interludes when the characters sit around interpreting and speculating and saying ‘Gosh, it must be...!’ (paraphrasing ever so slightly here) slow the pace down to glacial levels, but as the action gets more frantic and intense towards the end, the pauses are a welcome respite from the drama.
There were moments when the theological debate got quite interesting. Our Irish friends were very confident of the truth of their interpretations, which the more conventional priests saw as simple heresy. There is a moment when one of the priests makes a pronouncement about the apocalypse, and Ciarán immediately says 'How do you know that?' It's a good question, but the priest deflects it with an outraged 'How dare you presume to question me!' The voice of absolute authority putting down the ordinary person who has the temerity to say 'Yes but...'. I'm not sure whether the author is making a general point about organised religion, or illustrating the religious dogma of the day, or simply painting the character as a bad guy, but it struck a chord with me. In this particular case, the Irish interpretation of events is presumed to be the correct one purely because they are the protagonists in this particular story, but more than once I was wondering how exactly they could know particular facts. Some chains of logic seemed rather tenuous to me.
This is a long, intricate book, literate and full of convincing historical detail, with demons, magic swords, a prophecy, mad monks and a whole host of great fantasy elements to spice up the well-realised setting. It's a pity there's so much sitting around analysing texts between the battles and so much dry exposition, and for my taste the battles got a bit over the top towards the end. But hey, this is the apocalypse, after all, so it's allowed to be epic in scale. For those who are riveted by the tiny details of medieval life or enjoy puzzling over the hidden meanings in religious texts and zodiacal symbols, I highly recommend this book. Anyone who is prepared to put up with the explanations to get to the juicy battles with demons, it's still a great read. For anyone who, like me, would willingly sacrifice historical accuracy for a more evenly paced story, it doesn’t work quite so well. The action scenes are terrific, the long sections of exposition less so, and I would have liked a less insipid female lead character. Three stars.