Friday 18 October 2013

Pilgrims at the White Horizon, by Michael Wyndham Thomas

It is over four years since I read and reviewed here The Mercury Annual, by Michael Wyndham Thomas. Pilgrims at the White Horizon is the long-awaited sequel to this book, and completes the Valiant Razalia story. The best introduction I can give to the sequel is to reproduce my original review:
"The Mercury Annual is one of the strangest stories I have read in a long while. It commences with a lengthy Prologue which describes the world of Razalia and its neighbouring planets, together with their peoples. To say that this system is bizarre would be an understatement; it is the purest fantasy of the most unrealistic kind, in that no account is taken of any laws of science. The system's sun wanders among its planets, the inhabitants of one planet likes to visit others by means of giant catapults, Razalia is covered with barriers of pure white, like cracks in reality, into which people vanish never to return, and its humanoid people have a rather flexible anatomy, immediately growing organs as and when they need them. Each town is ruled by a Tharle, who acquires other peculiar abilities.

This is not the easiest story to get into and I was beginning to feel dubious about continuing until I reached the first chapter, which is dramatically different. This and much of the rest of the novel are set on present-day Earth and focus on the entirely mundane lives of Keith, whose main passion in life is his massive collection of classic comics, his dominating and aggressive wife Donna, their daughter Imogen and Keith's strange friend George, who shares his enthusiasm for the odd collectables of life. Donna is determined to convert their attic into something useful and plots to clear the space by manipulating her husband into selling the comic collection which covers the floor (the book's title refers to one of these). There is much loving description of the stories in the comics as Keith sorts through them, trying to decide what to do. The characters are well-drawn, the scenario and relationships entirely convincing. Only at the end of this part of the book is there any hint of a connection between Earth and Razalia.

The final part of the story returns to Razalia and describes the efforts of the Tharles to discover why the white barriers have begun to expand. One of their number has invented a peculiar device which he claims enables him to see and hear the legendary Maker of Razalia, who lives in a world which sounds increasingly familiar.

This short novel (under 160 pages) is only Part 1 of Valiant Razalia, and the various story threads are all left hanging in the air at the end of it. I am still trying to make up my mind about this book. It isn't the stuff of best-sellers, and the series could either vanish without trace or attract a cult following. However, it managed to hook me to the extent that I will be looking to get hold of Part 2 when it comes out."
Pilgrims at the White Horizon picks up immediately where the first book finishes – it is really one complete story, and essential to read The Mercury Annual first. In fact, I re-read the first book before plunging into the sequel and was pleased I did, as it put me in the right mood to explore more of the parallel worlds of Earth and Razalia. The book is twice as long as the first, providing more scope for exploration and character development. It is difficult to review effectively without some spoilers, so if you want to read it and hate knowing anything about what is in store, I will just say that this is a worthy sequel which develops the plot themes of the first book, introduces a lot of new elements and finally reaches a satisfactory solution (or does it?).  If you enjoyed The Mercury Annual, you really must read this one. Spoiler warning – read no further!

Donna continues to plot the sale of Keith's comic collection – she really is a chilling example of a manipulative wife – while the rather passive Keith tries to work out what to do about this as well as cope with his dysfunctional family, of which the engaging Imogen is the only redeeming member (if only all teenagers were like her!). Despite all of the discussions in a local pub with George and other sympathetic friends, the prospects are not looking good, but then something unexpected happens to Keith and Imogen.

On Razalia, Dreest the Tharle has been expanding the capabilities of the makeshift instrument he constructed to search for the Maker of Razalia, in the hope that this all-powerful being could intervene and stop the spread of the dead white zones gradually taking over the planet. It transpires that Razalia is only mentioned once outside its own system: in one of the treasured Mercury Annuals possessed by Keith, who is one of the last people to remember it. Dreest's search therefore homes in on Keith, whom he assumes is the Maker, and he is able to pull Keith and Imogen from Earth to Razalia, where they are faced by the awed expectations of the Tharles.

On Razalia they meet other characters including the mysterious and beautiful figure of the "Carolla who is not", and another Earthman who was extracted by the Tharles as also having some connection with Razalia (a lot more, actually, than Keith). Eventually Keith is forced to live up to his notional status and take the most drastic of steps to try to solve the problem of the spreading white, and in doing so makes even more fantastic discoveries.

The whole story of Valiant Razalia is so unusual that it defies comparisons. The three elements of a mundane Earthly tale of domestic hassle, a love-letter to the nostalgic essence of British 1950s children's comics, and one of the most bizarre worlds in fiction, are woven together to splendid effect. This is a tale that will remain in my mind for a long time, and joins the very select group of modern novels which I already want to read again.


Bill Garthright said...

Very interesting, Tony. You certainly make it sound intriguing. Thanks!

Anthony G Williams said...

You're welcome, Bill.

I suspect that many people will be turned off very early by the strangeness of this story, but if you can accept that you'll probably find it addictive!