Sean McMullen's latest work reminds me of nothing so much as reading Jack Vance - the opening pages are almost incomprehensible with names and terms that slowly shade into familiarity. But if Vance's familiarity never bred contempt then McMullen conversely isn't eventually able to produce the requisite wonder either.
The Miocene Arrow is set in the middle of the 39th century, almost two thousand years after the Call has devastated humanity. The Call robs anything much larger than a cat of all conscious volition and draws them off to the west. As if this weren't problematic enough, any powered vehicle bigger than 29½ feet is automatically destroyed by orbiting "Sentinels". Oh, and electricity is somehow forbidden too.
In a depopulated North America the Call permanently blankets almost all the known world (which, admittedly, is not much of it). The only pockets of civilization survive in Havens where the Call sweeps in at random for only a few hours daily, allowing a stable and surprisingly civilised culture to thrive.
One of these, Mounthaven, has retained powered flight technology using micro-light aircraft (pretty handy bearing in mind that the Call only extends 50 feet above sea-level) and is carefully ruled by Airlords and their technocratic Guilds, who monopolise the skies for typically lunatic but entertaining upper class rituals.
Thus have things been for millennia, but now dastardly Ozzie agents immune to the Call have infiltrated the Havens to cause not just a little mischief but quite possibly genocide!
Sean McMullen can weave a complicated yarn with the best of them.
The Miocene Arrow is a long book that begins as The Anome or Emphyrio and turns into a science fictional version of Antony Beevor's Stalingrad - but inevitably falls in comparison because the real Stalingrad is quite fantastic enough.
This bizarre future Earth is a superb and enthralling creation, a strange sort of Middle Ages with planes. But these planes are lovingly-crafted and individual works of art that make chivalrous knights of their gallant pilots - gallant pilots whose existence and codes of honour and warfare seem quite as stylised as their mechanical steeds.
If the large cast of characters never leap off the page at you then they're adequately portrayed and not infrequently hilarious. There's romance, evil, courage and revenge in large enough spoonfuls to keep your head firmly ensconced in the 39th century. The first half of The Miocene Arrow is a cracking and intriguing read.
Unfortunately McMullen completely blows it right in the middle, going off half-cocked with a decidedly wishy-washy explanation of almost everything that had worked to build up the previous 190 pages into a cracking read, and from then on The Miocene Arrow wends its way toward a disappointingly Boys' Own conclusion. The explanations behind the Call and even the much-vaunted Miocene Arrow itself fall very flat, as these things so depressingly often do, leaving the derring-do of the pilots to carry the rest of the book.
And 418 pages are a heavy weight for any micro-light to lift.