Writing as if words were musical elements and he is composing a masterpiece to rival Mahler's symphonies, Stephen Vessels has crafted a story that is a literary Arkenstone. And if you think of Amazon as a dragon curled on a mountain of treasure who bargains with, instead of burning, treasure-seekers, the comparison is apt.
The Ruptured Firmament is a mystery, an epic adventure, and a most unusual romance. The story does not simply challenge or defy what is deemed safe and socially acceptable, it demonstrates the irrelevance of mores when "two strong [souls] stand face-to-face, though they come from the ends of the earth." None of the characters prioritize safety over their self-appointed tasks; they just do their level best - or their damndest - to succeed. And where they love, whether it is love of knowledge or adventure or justice or power or another person or God, they love with full risk, without hedging their bets.
So, what is the story about?
A homicide detective and an aged nun are each transported, by very different routes, to the underground world called the Labyrinth that intersects with the ordinary world in peculiar ways. The detective, William Braden, is pursuing a murderer. The French nun, Beatrice Cloutier, has undertaken a vigil to understand the reality of faith without reservations before she dies. Their quests, so opposite in scope and intention, cross, part, and converge.
The murderer has killed an entire family with an unearthly substance, and he is one of the Quick, which means he is capable of crossing space and time. So, it turns out, is Braden, but the murderer can control the ability and Braden can't. Plus, he has to figure out a way to constrain a man who can escape any prison. But if the murderous substance came from the Labyrinth, so might a solution to Braden's difficulties, and a ship's captain named Gan, who was born in the Labyrinth, offers to help for reasons of his own. (Gan is my favorite character. He's terse, compact, fair-minded and effective.)
Braden travels across underground seas and strange landscapes, encountering Archetypes - people who have been transformed by the Labyrinth into living imagos. A terrible storm at sea has far-reaching consequences, and eventually Braden has to decide if he's a detective or a hero. But first, he gets to meet actual dragons.
Beatrice, who is more concerned with understanding the workings of mercy than justice, refuses to accompany Braden. Her discoveries are quieter, but just as marvelous. And if most of her adventures are solitary, she still winds up in the same hall of mirrors, confronting a dreadful adversary with Braden and a problematic assortment of would-be world savers.
The Ruptured Firmament is a prequel to The Door of Tireless Pursuit, another book in the Labyrinth of Souls project. If you have already read that novel, you may have wondered about the backstory of some of those characters. What drove Garritch to his pitch of villainy? Why is he obsessed with Lark? How did certain Archetypes come into their own? This story tells those tales, and more. Yet both books stand on their own feet and merits. And according to the author, a third book is in the offing to make it a trilogy.
Stephen Vessels's writing is simultaneously terse and lavish, understated and exquisitely specific. Not a single word is wasted, and I don't think a single necessary word is absent. The characters practically scintillate on the pages. Knife-edged writing, this. It is so utterly unlike any other book I've ever read it is hard to describe. It is as original in vision as Bujold's Chalion series; gritty and closer in tone to C.S. Lewis' science fiction and Pilgrim's Regress than to Tolkien's fantasy, yet it is magnificently fantastic. If I were to compare it to Ursula Le Guin's writing, I'd say it most closely resembles Tehanu. Not something you'd read aloud to a child, perhaps, but wondrously nourishing for the child who endures in our heart and is so often left starving. Strongly recommended. - Chris Wozney
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