Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review of Valentine Pontifex by Robert Silverberg

In Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg created an exotic planet filled with peoples and landscapes, all bursting with imagination.  The tale of a man recovering the throne wrongfully swept out from beneath his feet, Silverberg also gave his audience a strong, lovingly crafted main character in Lord Valentine.  The conclusion of the tale, Valentine Pontifex, is the other side of the coin, however.  How does Valentine deal with the weighty exigencies of leadership, all the while getting older?  Not as fresh or original as Lord Valentine’s Castle, Valentine Pontifex is nevertheless a fair read that continues to define Silverberg’s take on science fantasy on the vast planet Majipoor.

Ten years have passed since Lord Valentine retook the throne that was rightfully his, and in the time since Majipoor has prospered.  In his personal life, however, he has been having dizzy spells, as well as rushes of guilt for postponing the duty of descending into the Labyrinth to take his rightful place as Pontifex.  But things are changing quickly.  Quickening the guilt, Pontifex Tyeveras, a shell of a man kept alive by tubes and machines, begins to cry out unconsciously, begging for release into death.  Across the land, strange blights are spreading and destroying crops—the livelihood of Majipoor’s citizenry.  An enigmatic cult is rising and aggressive, mutant animals have also been sighted, the shapeshifters hinted as the cause but never confirmed.  Making matters worse, the sea dragons are behaving erratically.  Moving outside their migration patterns, they appear in great, flitting herds, their presence taken as a bad omen by all.  With trouble in his head and trouble in the land, for Valentine maintaining may prove more difficult than retaking the throne.

And this idea of story flows naturally from Lord Valentine’s Castle.  Where the Lady of the Isle might be said to symbolize Valentine’s return to the throne, the more mysterious King of Dreams could be said to represent Valentine Pontifex.  A symbol of the mental struggle that comes with Valentine’s coming to terms with descending into the Labyrinth, the book describes the other side of power—maintaining and releasing it—in personal and satisfying fashion.  The passionate, passive, and commodious Valentine readers are familiar with, returns.

What does not flow naturally, however, is the story itself.  Valentine’s descent just one side of the die, the viewpoints used to relate the larger happenings on Majipoor rarely work together in harmonious fashion.  Hissune and Valentine spread the narrative across scenes and points of action relevant to the story, but so too do a handful of peasants, Valentine’s staff, and a shapeshifter.  Having to jump in time to account for the physical distances covered on Majipoor, these viewpoints feel disjointed, the size of the planet actually hindering rather than helping the story.  These scenes are crafted with care, but given the irregular speed with which they develop in context to one another—a quick view here, an update there, a small development here, suddenly a major development there—the view to the whole is damaged.

The planet having been lovingly detailed in Lord Valentine’s Castle and Majipoor Chronicles, in Valentine Pontifex Silverberg seems to say: the stage is set, so let’s focus on plot and character.  But due to the resulting lack of detail to the setting, I can’t help but feel Valentine Pontifex is a lesser work.  Noticeably missing is the exotic sense of place which the first two books exude in spades.  New locales are explored, most notably the home of the King of Dreams, but for the most part the storyline revisits places readers are already familiar with, the Isle of Sleep, Shapeshifter lands, the Great Sea, Castle Mount, and others.  Wisely Silverberg does not try to re-describe these locations, but as a result eliminates the sense of wonder present in the other two books.

And there is a secondary effect to this missing detail.  In Lord Valentine’s Castle, the exquisite world building served a purpose: to elevate a stereotypical fantasy story above the mundane.  Without the world-building, however, the clichés of Valentine Pontifex are exposed.  The takeover schemes, the young man coming into power, the evil-evil plotting behind the scenes—all of these aspects have a fantasy been-there done-that feel to them.  Silverberg’s effortless flow of prose able to bear the brunt of this issue, nevertheless the evil of Farataa, the knowledge who will be the next Coronal and Pontifex, and the inevitable conclusion skew the narrative in negative fashion without the world building of the previous books.  In short, things are not as fresh or original as they once were, a stereotypical fantasy story the result.

Silverberg’s thematic aims, however remain as firmly humanist as ever, and something to be commended.  Valentine’s personal story highlights not only a coming to terms with ageing and position, but likewise an optimistic view of how cultural differences should be handled.   Something similar to Ursula Le Guin’s The Other Wind, the manner in which Majipoor’s species resolve their differences rejects rather than embraces aggression—an idea wholly anathema to most modern fantasy of similar scope.  Readers who understand Silverberg’s vision will find the ending satisfying, while those looking for the latest Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, or David Gemmell will be disappointed.
In the end, Valentine Pontifex is a worthy conclusion to Valentine’s tale—but just.  The stage having been set in Lord Valentine’s Castle, Silverberg shifts the balance to plot and character, adding bits of setting only as necessary.  Thus, from a world building standpoint—one half of the success of the original novel—there is little new.  But from a personal and developmental standpoint, Valentine and Majipoor, respectively, come to occupy a new stage. 

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