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Irenicon by Aiden Harte

Irenicon by Aiden Harte
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Book Name: Irenicon
Author: Aidan Harte
Publisher(s): Jo Fletcher Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback
Genre(s): Fantasy / Alternate History
Release Date: March 29, 2012

In the world that Irenicon is set, just after Jesus Christ was born, he was murdered. Torn from the arms of his mother, Mary, Jesus was killed by King Herod and therefore the word of Christianity never spread. Instead, Mary herself was honoured as a religious symbol and spread the values and messages of her son as best she could. Life on Earth is therefore very different when the novel begins in fourteenth century Italy. We learn that rather than Rome, two other cities, Rasenna and Concordia, have risen up as the most powerful.

IreniconIrenicon is the name of the river that blasted through the middle of Rasenna in 1347. The river, created overnight by engineers belonging to the Concordian Empire, runs uphill and has its own kind of consciousness. This consciousness is not something the Concordians expected and, therefore, not even they fully understand the mysteries of it. What everyone has learnt though is that any man or woman who approaches Irenicon will find themselves dragged into the river by mysterious water spirits known as the buio.

Over the years, the river has caused a great amount of separation within Resenna. As it stands, there are two families that dominate the city; in the north, you have the Morellos and in the south, the Bardinis. Things are complicated by the fact that the only surviving heir of the now deceased ruler, Sofia Scaligeri, is being looked after by the head of the Bardini family.

This character, Sofia, is our protagonist. Having grown up as a child in Rasenna, she has been put through a strenuous training regimen that has seen her become an expert in the city’s unique style of martial arts. The style is basically a form of stick fighting, as opposed to the more traditional fists or swords. Rather than kendo sticks though, they wield their family’s banners. Not only does this make it easy to identify who it is you are attacking, or even who is attacking you, but it means that the idea of family and battle has become further tangled.

With Sofia nearing the age of her inheritance, her life is about to get far more difficult. When she becomes countess, surely it is her responsibility to bring the hostile families together and bring peace back to Rasenna. But how? How does a seventeen-year-old girl end feuds that have lasted for generations? Things are complicated further when a mysterious Concordian engineer, Captain Giovanni, arrives in Rasenna stating that he is going to build a bridge over the Irenicon and that her people are going to help.

What are Giovanni’s motivations for building this bridge? Can it help or hinder Sofia’s aims of reuniting Rasenna’s families? And what about the water spirits, the buio, how will they react to the presence of humans around the river? Certainly, there are a lot of threads to follow in this novel and a lot of mysteries that will unravel as the novel progresses.

Aidan HarteRight, so, first thing is first, Irenicon is a damned hard novel to review. Typically, as a fantasy fan, I have found that books tend to be written by one of two types of authors; the writer who likes to take their time and build a world or the writer who likes to focus on their stories and characters. If you look at authors such as Brent Weeks for example, the world is very much a backdrop to his stories. If you look at say China Miéville, you can see that a huge amount of effort has gone into building this world and making it feel real. Aidan Harte has gone for the far rarer option of building a world and creating a wonderfully complex story full of multi-layered characters. This feat is made all the more impressive by the fact that Harte has decided to not create a completely new world, but reshape the world we are already familiar with.

I would call Irenicon a book of two-halves. The first half of the book is spent worldbuilding and completely reshaping history as we know it. The second half of the book is a very modern feeling fantasy adventure.

I think a reader’s enjoyment of this novel will very much depend upon whether they are the type of reader who is willing to take the time and really emerge themselves within a world, or a reader who likes to plunge straight into the action. Imagine the monumental task Aidan set himself, to take a readers conception of Europe and twist it on its head. In this fourteenth century, there were never knights; there were never Romans or any of those historical characters we are now so familiar with. The humans instead revelled in natural philosophy and science. They mastered their bodies, becoming more nimble, far better climbers and much stronger.

Personally, I thought the worldbuilding by Aidan Harte was masterful. Because modern fantasy trends seem to demand that the author throw us straight into the action, we don’t seem to see the level of worldbuilding that Harte offers here anymore. I do worry that some readers may put the book down after 50-100 pages with the idea that the book will maintain its relatively slow pace. DON’T DO IT! If you have the time and the willingness to really invest in this book, I think you will find the payoff truly worth the wait.

As you move into page 200 (the book is around 600 pages) you will feel truly involved in the storyline, interested to see where the building of the bridge takes Sofia and how she will manage her new role. You will begin to feel the real hatred between the warring families and a connection to the characters that are plotting to better their standing. Each time somebody turns cloak or reveals a hidden allegiance, you feel it with the new Contessa who is far too young and inexperienced for her role.

Irenicon (cover)One of the biggest complaints, when it comes to fantasy novels, is that ‘it is all the same’ or ‘they are all set in Arthurian worlds.’ Well, if you are looking for a book that is completely different to anything you’ve read before, this could well be it. So, what does Irenicon offer to you as a reader? Well, a completely unique world, a plot that will prove you wrong time after time, and a whole cast of characters that you will learn to love and hate (as Harte sees fit), all told through flawless prose.

Before signing off, I have to mention the cover. I watched Joe Abercrombie stroke the cover of this book, turn to me and say, “Wow!” That is how impressive this book is. It is something that I’ve come to expect from Jo Fletcher books now. Jo Fletcher is a woman who knows the fantasy genre like the back of her hand and she knows full-well that a good cover wrapped around good prose is what fantasy fans like. Fantasy fans like to keep their books and they want to be proud of them on their shelves. Irenicon is done in an absolutely gorgeous turquoise like colour with a beautiful battle scene stretched across it. The character of Sofia leads the way in bright red that helps her stand out above the rest of her followers. Really, until you see it, you can’t comprehend its real beauty. But until you do, I hope the scans give you an idea.

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Rating: 9.6/10 (7 votes cast)
Irenicon by Aiden Harte, 9.6 out of 10 based on 7 ratings
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5 Comments

  1. Hmmmm… It worries me that this book has a 150 page tutorial before taking off the gloves and giving us something to care about. That’s at least 3 hours of investment, which some people just don’t have. I’ll poke at it and see what I think myself, but I am a bit wary.

    Thanks for the review though. I will agree, the cover is eye-catching.

    • Overlord says:

      Ha! It certainly isn’t a 150 word tutorial, there is a good story line there, Aidan Harte just takes his time building the world around his characters. I guess, when you build a world from scratch it is easy because you explain things as and when you need to. When you place a novel or Earth, but an Earth that is significantly different to the Earth we know, you need to explain, very early on, what is different and what is the same – otherwise your reader will be completely disorientated.

  2. I think this sounds like a very interesting read, and I love stories with great world-building and great character development. The alternate history side of this sounds intriguing as well!

  3. [...] Iain Banks. Here’s an interview with Shelley Marsden of the Irish World and an insightful review from Marc Aplin of Fantasy Faction. Thanks to both. Back in the studio now and enjoying myself [...]

  4. the_hound says:

    when did China Meiville become renowned for his intricate world building? Aside from that though – sounds intriguing, and the cover looks great.

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