There is an intriguing concept at the core of this novel: the part of the world in which the action takes place, the Overland, is governed by the Machine, a mysterious and unseen construct that has ruled for ten thousand years, slowly but surely extending the Overland’s dominion over any known territory. The Machine interacts with the people through the Operator, a timeless character equally shrouded in mystery who acts as a bridge communicating the Machine’s choices in rulers: these are people selected at random from all stations in life, and all ages. No matter how strange or inexplicable some Selections may appear, everyone is convinced that the Machine has chosen well. That is, except for the Doubters.
These are the people reminding everyone of the Prophecy, the one claiming that after ten thousand years the Machine will select the One, the bringer of chaos and destruction, and as the story starts to unfold that time is drawing near…
Such a fascinating premise is carried on the virtual shoulders of intriguing characters and concepts: first among them are the Watchers, the Overland’s equivalent of a police force, all-seeing and all powerful, led by Tactician Brightling, one of the Machine’s selections and – to my eyes – the very embodiment of the warning about who watches the watchers. These controllers are both respected and feared, their main task being not so much the keeping of the peace, since the populace seems little inclined to mayhem given their long-ingrained submission to the Machine’s rule, but rather the rooting out of Doubters. The latter seem to be growing in numbers as the prophesied year of doom is upon the Overland, and the general situation places everyone at a crossroads, but none more than the Watchers, uncovering what might be an underlying insecurity in this police force, or maybe in its commanding officer.
Two of the main themes that most intrigued me are the kidnapping that happens in the first chapter and the final conquest of the remaining independent territory in the Overland. Young Alexander Paprissi, the son of a renowned merchant and explorer, hears a voice he attributes to the Machine, telling him that it’s breaking down: no one is inclined to believe him and one night the boy is kidnapped by the Operator himself, under the eyes of Alexander’s younger sister Katrina, whose point of view – fifteen years after the fact – will represent one of the main narrative threads in the story. Even more fascinating is the political problem created by the end of expansion: I had the impression that the takeover of the whole Overland territory was one of the means employed by the Machine and its Tacticians to keep the people focused on a shared goal. Now that all has been conquered – unless one intends to cross the sea in search of other lands over which the Machine has no control – something seems to be missing: this concept is discussed fleetingly but there is a definite undercurrent of unease every time it surfaces and it serves well to outline the figure of General Brandione, another great character in the story. It’s nevertheless a factor for instability and it adds its weight to a situation that’s far from predictable.
Add to all this the presence of some enigmatic players whose role and goals are beyond undefined, and the constant addition of clues about the possible fulfillment of the dire Prophecy, and you have a compelling book that through flawless pacing and constant, but well measured, shifts in point of view keeps you reading on – sometimes until the small hours. There is a steady increase in tension, a build-up of details, that paints an ever-widening picture that practically challenges you to uncover its hidden secrets. For me there was also an added treat, the suggestion of a more advanced past, now forever lost to memory and committed to legend: it’s the kind of detail that adds depth to a story, even when my questions remain unanswered, or maybe exactly because of that – having all the answers can sometimes be more unsatisfactory than remaining with some open doubts.
This is the kind of book that always poses a difficult choice for me: saying more would mean revealing precious clues that should be discovered by readers on their own, saying less seems to pay a disservice to a good story. And then there is the cliffhanger ending, holding a few unexpected surprises, that makes the reading of the next volumes in the trilogy practically mandatory.
Not that it will be a chore…