Review: The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

Posted by DarkChaplain at 3/05/2017
Lycaste is a lovesick recluse living in a forgotten Mediterranean cove who is renowned throughout the distorted people of the Old World for his beauty. Sotiris Gianakos is a 12,000-year-old Cypriote grieving the loss of his sister, a principled man who will change Lycaste's life forever. Their stories, and others, become darkly entwined when Aaron the Longlife—the Usurper, a man who is not quite a man—makes a claim to the Amaranthine throne that threatens to throw the delicate political balance of the known galaxy into ruin.
What is it lately with difficult reviews? This one takes the cake. This one was offered to me as a review copy by the author, and after reading the very neat sample through Kindle, I agreed to give it a bash. Fast forward a few weeks, and here we go with The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner's strange debut novel.

The Story:
"Lycaste is a lovesick recluse living in a forgotten Mediterranean cove who is renowned throughout the distorted people of the Old World for his beauty. Sotiris Gianakos is a 12,000-year-old Cypriote grieving the loss of his sister, a principled man who will change Lycaste's life forever. Their stories, and others, become darkly entwined when Aaron the Longlife—the Usurper, a man who is not quite a man—makes a claim to the Amaranthine throne that threatens to throw the delicate political balance of the known galaxy into ruin.

The Promise of the Child is a stunning feat of imagination set against an epic backdrop ranging from 14th-century Prague, to a lonely cove near the Mediterranean Sea, to the 147th-century Amaranthine Firmament. Toner has crafted an intelligent space opera filled with gripping action and an emotional scale that is wonderfully intimate, a smart and compelling debut that calls to mind the best of Kim Stanley Robinson or M. John Harrison."

Disclaimer
The author contacted me back in early February to offer me a review copy of the book. I liked the premise and sample I got on Amazon, and agreed to read & review it. I've also ordered a paperback copy on my own.

The Review:
The Promise of the Child is a tough book to judge. As a debut novel, it does a lot of things right, some things wrong, but it is so utterly inventive and refreshing, trusting the reader to piece things together on their own rather than over-explaining every single factoid, that for the most part I enjoyed my time with the book a lot. There are just some things left dangling that I'd have liked to see addressed in this book rather than the next.

The big thing to say about this book right off the bat is that it is difficult. It is by no means a quick and easy read. Clocking in at around 550 pages as a paperback (including glossary), this will take time to get through, and moreso because you'll often find yourself checking earlier chapters for things you might have missed, or clues that are being put into new light as the story progresses. It really doesn't hold your hand and expects you to take a wild plunge into the Amaranthine Firmament and its peculiarities.

For the first 100 or so pages you'll probably feel lost and like you are missing something - and you are, because Toner holds back a lot at first. The setting he presents is incredibly complex and in parts convoluted, giving a lot of strange vibes that I'll wager make more sense on a re-read of the novel or the series as a whole. But little by little, mysteries are being peeled back and small explanations offered to the reader. Suddenly your perspective shifts and appreciation grows.

By the end, though, I still felt a little lost in the universe. There are dangling plotlines that are obviously going to come to a head in the sequel(s), which I am determined to read as well, but they made me wait for continuations that just didn't happen in this book, or were still very opaque to me. I have my suspicions, but clear answers on many aspects still elude me - by design, but it does make me worry a bit that I'm simply missing something, or should have re-read a few more chapters after the fact. A little more context and explanation wouldn't have gone amiss, in my opinion, as much as I love it when authors trust their readers to make their own connections. As inventive and exciting as this debut novel is, I cannot deny that it appears somewhat daunting.

Beneath all the complexity, there lies a lot charme, however. Once you start getting the hang of it, you'll find yourself deeply invested in the Melius Lycaste's somewhat reclusive life, his struggles with romance, model house building and his eventual fall from grace. Lycaste's plotline serves to reinforce the strangeness of the world 12,000 years into the future, with its trees growing materials and food, an odd class system and abhuman servants.
Lycaste's progression through his home province and outside allows the reader to cling to something relatable while increasing the scope of the book as the character experiences new things and slowly loses more and more of his youthful innocence. He grew up rather sheltered and most of the world is beyond his understanding. Toner found a great way to gradually introduce the reader to technologies, the wider intrigue and events unfolding.

To me, Lycaste's almost tragic tale was the strongest part of the book, in terms of plot points. His unrequited love, being introduced to outside influences and discovering things he never paid attention to before all made for a dramatic tale. Where a lot of the other plotlines are mysterious and led by characters far from regular humanity, Lycaste just works out to be a relatable point of view character.

On the other hand we have Sotiris, a Perennial Amaranthine, an immortal human of old, getting invariably involved in a fierce play for the crown of Most Venerable emperor of the Amaranthine Firmament. The old leader has seemingly given up and a pretender to the throne is manipulating pieces and people to get what he wants - although what exactly that may be is a mystery for most of the book, and even beyond. Aaron the Long-Life, said pretender, is an enigma. Undeniably powerful, he is stranger than strange, invades the Amaranthines' dreams and Sotiris is hard-pressed to make his choices throughout the book.
I quite liked Sotiris, his personal tragedies and role in showcasing glimpses of our present day, and his reflections on the changes wrought upon the world since.

Besides these two central plotlines, there are others, of course. I have to admit though that, looking back, I am not quite sure they needed to be as elaborate as they ended up being. While the book kicks off with the various Prism-species fighting over a mysterious invention of the Vulgar Corphuso, I wasn't quite sold on how much time was spent on having them chased by the point of view character of a second plotline, some skirmishes and spacefaring. It was great to see some corners of the galaxy and get a broader understanding of how the Amaranthines' rule works and what rivalries exist between the Prism - a collection of various human-descended species, most of which appear to be dwarfish - but in the end little of it all had an immediate effect on the book.

Toner really managed to weave an intriguing and dense net of viewpoints and characters, but it did introduce a few pacing problems to hop around so much. I personally enjoy the switching perspectives in books, but here I was really eager to get back to the most intriguing characters. Though, admittedly, without these plotlines there'd be little enough space travel and void warfare to make things seem a bit awkward.

I know this review is sounding nitpicky, or even negative. But I really didn't get a negative feeling from the book. I liked it a lot, and wish I had the time to go straight to the sequel, The Weight of the World, partially because I really enjoyed Toner's style and courage, but also because I am hoping for more answers to what is going on in the Firmament. There are entire chapters in the book hinting at something even bigger going on, yet these bigger factors barely materialize until the very end, and even then just briefly. There is a lot to the Amaranthine Spectrum, and The Promise of the Child makes me think that I have barely seen the tip of the iceberg of what Tom Toner can do. There's so much to it already that I cannot help but feel respect for the author's ingenuity.

This is a highly unconventional novel, which does a lot of things I appreciate about good space opera stories. It is a book that demands a lot of attention and thinking on the reader's part, which can be problematic if you feel stressed and want to unwind with a good novel. The Promise of the Child is so full of intricate details that a slip of attention can cost you, especially as this debut focuses a lot on worldbuilding aspects over direct plot movements.
I'd advise against reading it in stressful environments like public transportation or waiting rooms - you'd do yourself and the novel a disservice getting distracted. But if you decide to take the plunge and stick with it through the early sections filled with confusing ideas and wondrous concepts, you'll find a rewarding and intelligent adventure with great twists and a promising future.

Despite my gripes, I want to stress that I had a good time with it. It was not an easy read, but all the more rewarding for it. It is a flawed gem with many breathtaking ideas. I am excited for The Weight of the World and exploring more of this setting. Now that I've gotten to grips with what Toner is doing with his debut universe, I'm ready for more.


The Promise of the Child on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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