Book Review: Irenicon – Aidan Harte

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“The river Irenicon was blasted through the middle of Rasenna in 1347 and now it is a permanent reminder to the feuding factions that nothing can stand in the way of the Concordian Empire. The artificial river, created overnight by Concordian engineers using the Wave, runs uphill. But the Wave is both weapon and mystery; not even the Concordians know how the river became conscious – and hostile.

 But times are changing. Concordian engineer Captain Giovanni is ordered to bridge the Irenicon – not to reunite the sundered city, but to aid Concord’s mighty armies, for the engineers have their sights set firmly on world domination and Rasenna is in their way.

 Sofia Scaglieri will soon be seventeen, when she will become Contessa of Rasenna, but her inheritance is tainted: she can see no way of stopping the ancient culture of vendetta which divides her city. What she can’t understand is why Giovanni is trying so hard to stop the feuding, or why he is prepared to risk his life, not just with her people, but also with the lethal water spirits – the buio – that infest the Irenicon.

 Times are changing. And only the young Contessa and the enemy engineer Giovanni understand they have to change too, if they are to survive the coming devastation – for Concord is about to unleash the Wave again.”

 

This is a novel about a river.

No, really.

Decades ago, the river Irenicon tore through Rasenna, effectively dividing the city into two, and thoroughly terrifying its citizens. The feuding factions occupying the city more or less carried on with business as usual – working during the day, and attacking each other at night – but the river, a huge, relentless force that had torn so easily through their city, couldn’t be ignored, and their daily lives had to adjust to accommodate it. Since then, Rasenna and Concord have maintained a complex relationship, and even at its most cordial, the danger and the threat presented by that strong city linger.

This premise certainly does not suffer from being overly simplistic. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. There are enough distinct, and, dare I say it, intriguing threads to satisfy even the most demanding reader, it provides a clear indication of what direction the novel is likely to travel in – without spoiling the ending, which shouldn’t be as rare as it is – and more than adequate space for a great plot and brilliant characters.

However.

(Drumroll please)

I’m still, sometime after finishing Irenicon, not quite sure how I feel about it. To put it absurdly simply: I opened the book expecting one thing, and what I found was entirely different. While that was not necessarily bad – and, for many reasons, it was very good – I was ultimately faced with a narrative that, instead of meeting or exceeding my expectations, somehow circumnavigated them to run wildly in the other direction, leaving rose petals drifting in its wake.

The problem with the plot was twofold. On the surface, Irenicon is a particularly interesting succession dispute. Sofia, heir apparent, is faced with a whole host of enemies, several long-standing and frankly rather ridiculous traditions, and seemingly ironclad internalised prejudices on her way to success. It’s a long, uphill battle to the top, and the odds are certainly not in her favour. But Irenicon is also about the man that falls in love with her, an Engineer – not the usual sort, might I add – sent from Concord to build a bridge that will enable them to continue taking over the world. And, reading it, I wasn’t quite sure which I was supposed to be more interested in. They are the two obvious main characters, but their narratives do not combine well, and that damages the cohesion of the novel.

On the other hand, the world building in Irenicon is, in a word, exquisite. Everything from the widest concept, to the smallest detail, shows evidence of being considered at length. It’s incredible work, and really brings the novel to life, vivid enough to draw the reader straight into the action. I almost felt as if I could really be there, peering around a building to spy on the action, and that is not something to be taken lightly.

Additionally, the characters are vibrant and exceedingly well crafted, without a stereotype in sight. They’re three-dimensional enough to feel realistic, and they fit their world to perfection. Sofia might easily have turned into the archetype ‘strong’ female devoid of all feelings, but she doesn’t, and it is the combination of her sympathetic, quick-thinking outlook and her fighting prowess that arguably enables her to save the day.

However, Sofia’s narrative quickly turns into a Romeo and Juliet snoozefest that we know and loathe. Star-crossed lovers are a perfectly respectable narrative trope, but I expected her character development to arise from the actual plot, not from her inexplicable interest in the Engineer sent from Concord. To add insult to grievous injury, said Engineer’s character development arises from the plot developments that exist alongside the realisation of his all-consuming love for Sofia.

There’s a clear imbalance, and it’s not one that I liked.

Ultimately, then, I liked many aspects of Harte’s Irenicon. It’s well written, the world building aspects are exceedingly admirable, and there are many excellent characters, all of which undergo significant development throughout the course of the narrative. For the problems mentioned above, however, I was unable to give it 5 stars.

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