Paul Park,
Soldiers of Paradise
(Avon, 1990)

Sugar Rain
(Avon, 1990)

The Cult of Loving Kindness
(AvoNova, 1992)

Soldiers of Paradise, Sugar Rain and The Cult of Loving Kindness comprise the three volumes of The Starbridge Chronicles, science fiction set on a distant yet Earth-like alien world where the seasons are generations long. The first two volumes function as a continuous extended narrative while the third acts as an extended coda that is vital to bringing the saga to closure.

Winter seemed the longest time, the time of rebellions, of famine and disease. In the city of Charn -- within its sprawling slums, its castle-covered mountain, and with its curious mix of 20th century type industrial technology mingling with a wide range of alternative lifestyles -- it was the time when the Bishop's priests ruled, the priests and the powerful, decadent Starbridge family.

But now Winter was nearing its end and the drunken prince, Abu Starbridge and his cousin, Thanakar the Doctor, forsook the castle for the slums below, mingling with the thieves, heretics and the Antinomials -- nonbelievers without language, responsibility or desire, meat-eaters in a society where meat was taboo, dangerous beings who lived free from thoughts, caught up in the spell of their own unique music.

In this world on the verge of Spring with its paradoxical life-and-death-giving Sugar Rains (more than mere water), Abu, Thanakar and Abu's sister Charity were about to be caught up in a revolution not of their making. And before it was over, one of them, Abu, would become a legendary martyr, while the others would become outcasts, fleeing their burning city for the dubious sanctuary of an enemy land. Along the way they would discover a truth far older than religion and witness the events that would permanently transform their world.

The Cult of Loving Kindness concludes the tale by portraying events a generation after what was depicted in the first two books as described above. It is the story of two twins -- a boy, Rael, and a girl, Cassia -- growing up in a primitive jungle village through the alien years of a Summer that lasts a generation. As a resurgent civilization from the faraway city of Charn expands across the world towards them, the pair of protagonists get swept up in the mystery and ecstasy of a new religion growing in the wilderness to challenge the accepted faith. The implication of all this is of endless cycles, eternally repeating, with the twins as avatars reborn from earlier times. Again, mystical beliefs flourish in a world still maintaining industrial level technology amidst cultural diversity.

The Starbridge Chronicles are very ambitious and impressive first novels depicting a complexly conceived world in which the characters are frequently portrayed as being overwhelmed by vastly larger forces of nature and the social/political/religious chaos that ensues in the wake of the transition from a seemingly endless Winter to Spring and then again, to Summer.

Park's narrative shifts from rather too brief segments focusing on the protagonists to descriptive passages concerning larger political and religious events which read a bit too much like a history text book. Although everything described is endlessly fascinating and inventive, this has the effect of distancing the reader from the story and it is a relief to get caught up in the emotional intensity of the scenes that focus directly on individuals. These are gripping enough to make it worthwhile to persist through the remote and detached parts. Park's inventive world-building concepts -- memorable, decadent scenarios, bizarrely mixing industrial tech with a wide variety of cultural types -- inevitably evoke comparisons to Brian Aldiss's Helliconia and Gene Wolfe's New Sun, and it comes close, but doesn't quite measure up to these masterworks by more mature writers. Still, The Starbridge Chronicles are definitely worth reading for their distinctive and provocative treatment of politics and religion and society interacting as seen through the entertaining prism of an ingenious work of fantastic fiction.

[ by Amy Harlib ]