Saturday 18 January 2014

The Ring of Ritornel by Charles L Harness

Charles Harness was an American SF writer whose first novel, The Paradox Men, I reviewed on this blog in November 2007. The Ring of Ritornel was his second novel, published fifteen years later in 1968.

The story is set in the far-distant future when humanity has settled this galaxy and spread to neighbouring ones. In the first part of the story, the principal character, James Andrek, is a young boy and the action focuses on his father, a spaceship captain, and his brother Omerle, Poet Laureate to Magister Oberon, the ruthless absolute ruler of the Home Galaxy. Disaster strikes when his father dies and his brother disappears from the Great House of Oberon, and the search for Omerle comes to dominate Andrek's life.

Fifteen years later, Andrek has qualified as a lawyer and obtained a post in the Great House in order to further his investigations into his brother's disappearance. He soon finds himself in deep trouble and is sent on a dangerous mission, but acquires some unlikely allies who enable him to discover what has been going on. Andrek then faces decisions which are critical not just for him but for all of humanity, and the conclusion is unexpected and unconventional.

Like other stories by Harness, this is on the far-out fringe of SF and contains some mystical aspects which add a distinct element of fantasy, particularly concerning the tussle between the rival religions of Alia (everything occurs as a result of chance) and Ritornel (everything is cyclical and keeps returning to the beginning). The emphasis is on the major themes of humanity's future and especially the capacity for enhanced abilities. A lot of scientific and pseudo-scientific explanation is included, some of which is decidedly dated in its assumptions, and some events had me scratching my head; it's best just to go with the flow and not try to pick it apart. Despite this, Ritornel is a fast-paced page-turner that I enjoyed reading again. There is a strong flavour of A E van Vogt in the themes and writing style, so if you like fiction similar to Vogt's Weapon Shops and Null-A series, you will probably enjoy Harness' work.

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