Diamond Mask by Julian May

Diamond Mask book cover
Rating 8.9/10
Lassie in the sky with diamonds

With especially complex series, it never pays to wait too long between instalments, and though Jack the Bodiless had been thoroughly enjoyable, there is no denying that it wasn’t exactly an easy book to get into, especially given the rather sad lack of convenient plot details available online. Indeed, a bit of internet sifting indicates that Julian May seems to be one of these writers whose works are comparatively little known, but absolutely adored by those who do know them. Since it’s always better to discover a new writer’s work yourself, I’d also urge anyone who hasn’t read Jack the Bodiless to stop here for fear of spoilers.

Diamond Mask comprises the second part of Rogatien Rimellard’s reminiscences concerning humanity’s entrance into the galactic Milieu. Though now an equal partner alongside the six exotic alien races, not everyone accepts the Milieu’s destiny for humanity. In particular the notion of Unity, of blending all of operant humanity into a single group mind sounds to some like the death of individuality and privacy. Thus a rebel faction arises, both in the galactic assembly, and among the general population, a rebel faction which the rather stodgy galactic Milieu is ill-equipped to deal with. Meanwhile the entity known as Fury and its servant, the hideous four part being known as Hydra, continue their campaign of murder, eager to push the rebels into actual violence and chaos. When however Hydra slaughters the family of the five year old Scottish lass Dorothea McDonald, Fury sets into motion a chain of events that nobody could’ve predicted. Dorothea after all is a latent, someone whose mental powers are blocked and inaccessible, however if she should achieve her potential she could be either Fury’s fiercest opponent, or its most fervent convert, particularly given her antipathy towards Fury’s greatest enemy, the disembodied brain John Rimellard, aka Jack the Bodiless.

One of the nicest things about Diamond Mask, was simply the fact that as I was already familiar with May’s future society and its history, I wasn't having to play catchup as I was during the start of the previous book. Indeed, like the most complex science fiction writers such as David Brin or Frank Herbert, May is able to present us with a society with its own concerns, fashions and styles, in this case an entire culture adapting to metapsychic mind powers. Whilst May, with her intensively lovable characters such as the gallic old grump Uncle Rogi, or the wonderfully curious and witty Jack, and her intensively friendly style replete with puns, poetry and light hearted digressions, is far more accessible than some, there is still no denying that simply knowing where I was, made Diamond Mask a much easier experience.

Another thing I really enjoyed was the fact that so much of the book revolved around Diamond Mask herself. Dorothea’s story is a familiar, almost cliché one to any reader of fantasy, family of a child with special powers is murdered by the villain, child is unable to use their powers, child grows up on an isolated farm just wanting to be normal, child discovers their special powers in extremis, child must leave isolated farm, child learns of villain’s existence from wise old mentor and seeks revenge against wise old mentor’s advice, child meets ideal member of the opposite sex and feels instant antipathy, child eventually confronts villain with unwanted help of love interest.

What makes Dorothea’s story fascinating however, is the sheer mastery with which it’s told. May’s pace is always leisurely, and she works up to the initial murder with agonising slowness, even having the innocent Dorothea run into two of Hydra’s units along the way. Once the murder has occurred, we get every minute of Dorothea’s grief, and of her confusion at being packed off to her father’s farm on the Scottish planet of Caledonia, as well as her initial feelings about her distant father and what she senses of his character. Indeed, given that with Dorothea the focus shifts away from the gloriously privileged Remillard dynasty and their position at the top of the operant pyramid, May starts hinting at some of the less pleasant sides to this Operantist society, from Dorothea’s fear at the painful psychic therapy she’s been put through in an effort to awaken her powers, to Dorothea’s grandmother, the frosty Marcia’s casually disturbing talk of “true people,” as opposed to “dead heads.”

Two other reasons why I warmed to Dorothea’s story, were May’s intensively lovely creation of three dimensional characters, often in a short space of time, and how casual May was about creating amazing landscapes, fascinating societies and unique technologies simply as background ideas. After all, while we’re all familiar with the orphan with special powers growing up on the out of the way farm, I can’t think of anywhere else where that farm exists on a world where airborne flora floats through the upper atmosphere like confetti and must be harvested in huge, zeppelin like flyers. Indeed, the Scottish planet of Caledonia is a truly fascinating place, with a coloured sky, volcanos, earthquakes and a surfeit of diamonds, and the strangeness of local alien wildlife contrasting wonderfully with some homey Scottish names and traditions which May mostly got right.

The characters May populates these landscapes with are just as fascinating to be around, indeed one highly amusing side line plot is the rekindling romance between Dorothea’s cold, abrasive grandmother, and her roistering burly husband science fiction satirist Kyle, a romance aided by regeneration technology, one of the few instances where a writer managed to write a love/hate relationship and got the bickering and increasingly fond tension spot on. Dorothea’s story isn’t without familiar faces either, since even before she makes it back to earth and runs into uncle Rogi, who plays the part of her boozy Franco-American Obi-Wan Kenobi very well, the ironically mysterious alien Lylmik Atoning Unifex is known to her appropriately enough as an angel, and of course the sinister Fury also makes its presence felt.

One minor problem I did have with Dorothea’s story, is that once again we’re given another child prodigy who has degrees before her fifteenth birthday, and even at five is behaving like a much older child, indeed, possibly because she was less comfortable writing truly young children, May seems to populate her fiction with a surprising number of hyper intelligent wunderkinds. Fortunately, like Mark and Jack, Dorothea definitely falls on the right side of likable vs insufferable, indeed far less insufferable than Mark.

The rest of the story, comprising Rogi’s first person memoirs interspersed with the doings of the Remillard family was very similar to what we’d seen previously. Glittering landscapes, such as the enthusiastic purple Poltroyan race’s rather offbeat take on Saint Patrick’s Day, and some wonderfully flawed characters making up for the Remillard’s blasé assumption of being born to privilege and power, in both political and metapsychic terms.

Whilst this time I was familiar enough with the large Remillard clan to avoid getting too bogged down in family relations, the rather murky politics, both discussed between the Remillard’s and more broadly in Rogi’s background essays could get a bit draggy on occasion. Even though we know from Rogi’s retrospectives years later that the metapsychic rebellion against the Milieu will eventually erupt into violence, at this point most of what we see of the rebels are rather aimless political discussions, either involving the Remillards wrangling, or clandestined meetings between newly introduced characters whose significance is not always obvious.

Several members of the Remillard’ family however still have fascinating journeys here. Mark’s investigations into technologically augmenting mind powers make for both some spectacular sequences, and for some interesting development of Mark as a decidedly grey character, especially following one exquisitely described, excruciating evil perpetrated against Mark by Hydra. I also enjoyed the quite justified public haranguing of Mark’s father Paul, finally brought to task for his cuckolding of another man, and confronted with some unpleasant, if unintended consequences.

May also gives attention to some Remillard family members who’d been background players up to now. Though the Remillard wives are still slightly side-lined as happy home makers, one major development comes through Anne Remillard’s catholic faith, something which May treats with both respect and care, and just another part of the three dimensional nature of one of her characters, like Kenneth McDonald’s homosexuality or the Caledonian’s pride in their Scottish heritage.

May takes an unexpected route with Jack. On the surface, the idea of having a character who is essentially a free floating brain which psychically projects its own bodies seems absolutely bizarre. What is even stranger however, is that Jack is neither a completely alien superbeing nor an over intelligent ideal with all of the answers. May simply portrays Jack as an extremely bright young man, with a quirky sense of humour, a boundless curiosity and even a rather prideful adolescent streak at times, something which made him feel all the more human.

Unfortunately, as with Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask did have issues with pacing, since May is much more interested in the journey than the destination, and is quite content to stop along the way to see the sights or take the time off for a bit of fun with her characters. This made Diamond Mask a completely entertaining book to read, but not exactly one with too much edge of the seat tension, accept when Fury and Hydra put in an appearance.

The book’s final section was wonderfully constructed. While I was a little disappointed when Dorothea’s mind powers instantly had her at fifteen elected to the position of planetary dirigent of Caledonia, and universally loved by all and sundry (including none operants), at the same time, the wonderful part psychic investigation Dorothea made of the Remillard family (with Rogi’s grudging assistance), complete with little mental chess games played against Mark and Jack was both a fascinating bit of fencing, and also brought to the for the ultimate question of the series, which one of the Remillard family was actually harbouring fury’s personality.

This section culminated in a truly epic confrontation with Hydra. Indeed, I was impressed that May, a careful, colourful, clever writer ever open to character nuance, suddenly threw away all restraint and featured what was effectively a full blown magical battle in the beast’s very lair, complete with monstrous transformation, fireball hurling and telekinesis.

I actually found myself wondering how May would top that, and the answer is quite awesomely, including both the beginning of a sweetly engendered romance between Dorothea and Jack, and a world shattering psychic confrontation in the most breath-taking of locations. 
My only minor issue with the conclusion, is that after following Dorothea’s story all the way through, seeing her grow and undergo hardship and evolve as a character, it was a little disappointing that she got slightly damselled here. While she was still able to show some fortitude, said fortitude was effectively just the ability to hold on until the cavalry happened to arrive. Then again as with much of Dorothea’s story, her romance with Jack starting with a big hero moment is yet again another example of May taking a familiar formula, and executing it in her own unique way.

Whilst Diamond Mask has a few of the same minor issues as Jack the Bodiless, some slightly draggy politics, an at times too relaxed pace, a focus on the over privileged, and a mild tendency to old fashioned, if beautifully written female characters, in general these issues were far less in evidence. May both gives her own twist on a classic tale, and evolves the characters we’ve come to know in unexpected ways, whilst taking into account fascinating alien worlds and a glittering future galaxy into the bargain. Indeed, whereas some reviewers accuse Diamond Mask of being a typical middle trilogy slump, to me, the familiarity with the world, and the focus on Dorothea and other appealing characters made this an even better experience than its predecessor, and if the trend continues the third volume of the trilogy should be something truly spectacular.

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from New Zealand

9-stars

A great book that I've re-read many times. Would love to visit Caledonia, too.

9/10 from 2 reviews

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