I received this novel from Pan McMillan through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
This book was one hell of a rollercoaster ride, indeed: there is something to be said about starting a novel with little or no idea, or expectations, about what you’re going to find, and it’s like embarking on a journey into a strange land, not knowing what kind of peoples or beasts you will find. The Doors of Eden is exactly like that, and not just in a figurative way, because the phrase “worlds enough and time” – which ends up being quoted at some point – describes perfectly the core concept of the story.
It all starts like a mystery, with two girls – Lee and Mal – taking a trip in search of outlandish creatures and with Mal disappearing into what looks like the portal into a strange, impossible world, the disappearance being recorded by the authorities like an accident and Lee having to deal with survivor’s guilt and the burden of being a witness to something that defies reason. That is, until four years later, when Mal reappears out of the blue while freakish events start sending the world into turmoil, adding new elements – science fiction, pure science, thriller, just to name a few – to the narrative mix.
At the same time, MI5 agents Julian and Allison are investigating the home incursion on renowned physicist Kay Amal Khan, and soon find themselves facing inexplicable episodes like untraceable phone calls or information windows appearing on computers disconnected from power. Not to mention some equally eerie matters like the strange individuals, looking like one of the discarded branches of humanity, popping up here and there, or the shady activities of tycoon Rove, whose figurative fingerprints seem to be all over the place.
What it all boils down to, as it’s evident from the incident of Mal’s disappearance, is that the theory of parallel worlds, where evolution took widely different paths, is not a theory at all and for some reason the barriers between these worlds are getting thinner, with an ever-increasing risk of intrusions between realities. Dr. Kahn’s theoretical work postulated this possibility, but now that it’s become a dangerous, potentially deadly reality, everyone is after her – either to fix or exploit the situation…
If Adrian Tchaikowsky’s previous book, Children of Time, put me in connection with his notions on the path of evolution of creatures different from mankind, this new novel takes that concept and multiplies it for what looks like an infinite number of instances: between the chapters dedicated to the core events and characters, there are interludes written in the form of an academic lecture on parallel evolution, where every possible permutation of intelligent life is shown with an abundance of fascinating detail. Where at first I saw that these… interruptions as a distraction from the story, after a while I understood they were an integral part of it, better still, they were the way to introduce the crucial idea at the basis of the novel – and to show how these endless shifts were the result of small changes growing into an avalanche effect.
The logical progress from the primordial ooze to these mind-boggling alternate Earths is mind-blowing and nothing short of fascinating: the way Tchaikowsky turns the words on the page into a cinematic depiction of steamy jungles or endless seas, peopled by the most bizarre creatures, is nothing short of riveting while being at the same time an informative and easily understandable presentation of the infinite possibilities of evolution. I can make no claim on scientific knowledge of the processes of evolution, but reading those sections of the book was no struggle at all, while it proved equally fascinating and a close look into this author’s scope of imagination.
The characters are as carefully drawn as the background in which they move: Julian and Allison have something of a Mulder & Scully vibe, in that they are attracted by the spookier aspects of their investigation and are not afraid of getting their proverbial feet wet, while the antithesis between her willingness to take the weirdest of clues at face value and his very British adherence to propriety serves to define them well and make them quite relatable. One of my favorite characters is that of Dr. Kahn: highly intelligent and amusingly sarcastic, she’s quite different from the prototype of the brilliant-but-detached scientist in that she’s very rooted in reality and possesses a huge capacity for empathy, particularly when she finds herself among non-human creatures (I will come back to them in a short while) and realizes, after the first understandable moments of revulsion, that no matter the shape, people are still people with all of their fears, desires and needs. And she, being a transgender and the continued object of hostility and scorn, is best qualified to see beyond mere outward appearances.
The “bad guys” are given as much depth as the “heroes” and if it’s simply impossible to share Rove’s world-view or his ultimate goal – particularly when the plan is revealed in its complexity, ruthlessness and longtime preparation – it’s also easy to see where he comes from and what shaped his mindset, not least because his kind finds far too many real-life examples in the present world. Rove’s main henchman Lucas is also an interesting character, balanced between opportunistic choices and some faint glimmers of a conscience, which gift him with more facets than one would expect from someone in his position and… career choice.
I want to reserve a special mention to the non-human creatures I spoke of before, from one of the many Earths: once again Adrian Tchaikowsky managed to offer a different point of view on animals I find absolutely repulsive, and to turn them into beings I could empathize with. If it looked difficult with the spiders from Children of Time, here it seemed impossible, because we’re talking about rats – yes, critters that manage to make those spiders look like house pets and who come on the scene Hobbit-sized and even more revolting for their humanlike appearance:
They were hunched, half the size of a man, wearing rubbery black uniforms with gas masks and goggles and wielding ugly-looking weapons designed for use up close against crowds, because that was their entire life where they came from.
If you add the detail of their world being literally swarming with them due to unchecked breeding, the picture being painted here is something straight from the worst of nightmares. And yet the author is able to humanize these rats, give them distinct personalities and add poignancy to their appearance: much of it is due to the character of Dr. Rat, but also to a scene in which a whole family group runs for safety bringing all their worldly possession with them. Ludicrous as this might sound, in that moment I thought of the cute rats in Disney’s Cinderella, and stopped seeing these as the scurrying vermin that would otherwise have me run for cover. Yes, Adrian Tchaikowsky did it again…
Prepare for a full immersion in a huge story teeming with amazing ideas and graced with as much heart in it as there is science. It might feel like far too much at times, but it’s a journey totally worth taking.