Magnificat is a somewhat strange entry to finish the series on. Though chronologically last in the Galactic Milieu trilogy, it also serves as the final prequel before Julian May's Pleistocene Exile series, making it both at one and the same time Return of the Jedi, and Revenge of the Sith, both an ending and a beginning, a triumph and a tragedy. This made it a rather contradictory book in many ways, although the contradictions just made the whole thing all the more compelling.
Before diving into them though, I'd recommend stopping here if you haven't already read Diamond Mask and Jack the Bodiless, since this is definitely one series which is better experienced than explained.
Despite her face being badly scarred by her battle with the geothermal Diatreme, Dorothea McDonald, known as Diamond Mask, has announced her wedding to John Remillard; Jack the Bodiless. However, Jack and Diamond's happiness is set against turbulent times. Jack's aunt, Anne Remillard has revealed that Fury is a destructive alternative personality, harboured by her gentle and scholarly father Denis. As the powerful Remillard family plan a trap for Fury, tension over the upcoming question of human unity reaches fever pitch, with the rebel factions slowly coming to the conclusion that violent action might be the only way to protect human individuality and autonomy, and the rather stiff and high handed milieu having no idea how to defuse the situation peacefully. Standing in the centre of events is Jack's brother Marc; fiercely intelligent and ambitious, Marc's dream is to create mental man, disembodied brains who survive via enhanced mental powers alone as his brother Jack does, a form which Marc sees as the next step of human evolution, free of all the bodily compulsions and biological imperatives Marc himself hates so much. Yet, Marc is unaware mental man is not truly his dream, but Fury's, or that pursuit of this dream will carry Marc into the forefront of the rebellion, and set off an avalanche of torture, violence and devastation, with humanity's only hopes resting on the none existent shoulders of Jack the Bodiless and his wife Diamond Mask.
One of the first of Magnificat's contradictions comes right at the start. Previously, both Diamond Mask and Jack the Bodiless comprised the life stories of their title characters, and so were by their nature books which took a longer time to get going. Also, we know, both from Uncle Rogi's retrospectives and a perusal of the Remillard family tree at the front of each book, that a major tragedy will occur in 2083. With Magnificat beginning in 2076 therefore, I assumed that Julian May would move the plot along a little more quickly. This however was not the case. May has always been concerned with looking at the small details and turnings along the way, and the fact that Magnificat covers seven years in the lives of characters’ we're already familiar with rather than 20 or so years in the lives of new characters made no difference at all. Of course, being Julian May with her clever, witty and occasionally poetic style, replete with strange occurrences, such as a brief visit from a member of the excitable and hermaphroditic Gi, a look at operant justice for a violent criminal, or the powerful, immortal Lylmik's bemusement at a community run for the convenience of dog loving humans. This means the journey is for the most part well worth taking, even if it is via the long way.
That being said, there were still times where the plot felt as if it were stalling. As the book opens, we are treated to a long section in which Anne Rimellard convinces Uncle Rogi that Denis is Fury. Since Diamond Mask ended with Rogi's' cliff-hanger revelation of Fury's identity, this discussion felt rather pointless, indeed apparently May's publishers convinced her to put in the hook as to Fury's identity at the end of Diamond Mask, and I wonder if she'd have been better leaving it out, so that the examination of the evidence at the start of this book wouldn't feel so much like going through the motions.
Then again, Fury himself was quite fascinating here, indeed as always in May's work it is the characterisation that shines. Fury might at rock bottom be a basic reworking of Mr. Hyde, even as far as having the gentle professor Denis Remillard as his Dr. Jekyll, but this makes the plot no less effective or tragic. Indeed, the lavishly described metapsychic exorcism the Remillard family work on him is as gorgeous and terrible a moment as any in this highly literate series. I do slightly wish May had resisted that rather well-worn trope of abused men turning out to be evil, especially considering that she slightly contradicts, or at least muddies what we already know of Fury being the creation of the malignant Victor Remillard in Jack the Bodiless.
In general characterisation, backed by descriptive flare is as always a very strong point with May, indeed the glittering description of Jack and Diamond's wedding, and their intensively colourful metapsychic lovemaking afterwards were beautiful bits of writing, particularly since May contrasted them against a secret and highly unpleasant confrontation between poor old Rogi and one of the Hydras.
I will admit neither my lady nor I quite got May's point in Dorothea refusing to heal her burned face, particularly when her husband's physical form is entirely mutable and she lives in a world where regen tanks are available to all, indeed one section, in which Diamond manipulates her father using her appearance was the only time in the book when she became almost dislikeable.
Probably the most major character aside from Rogatien Remillard himself (even more so than Jack and Diamond in many senses), was Marc, indeed the comparison to Revenge of the Sith is not idle, and I suspect that in the later books Marc Vader is quite the presence. The way May evolves the Marc we've seen previously, and shows how and why he conceives of such a monstrously wrong idea of mental man is both tragic and believable, especially with Atoning Unifex, Marc's far future incarnation, witnessing its past mistakes with compassion and sorrow. Yet, Marc's story is not quite the straight road from well-meaning scientist to evil genius. In particular, the story of how the otherwise driven and nearly genophobic (sex fearing), Marc fell in love and how this stymied Hydra's plot was a genuinely awesome moment.
Whilst Marc's wife Cyndia, despite being introduced as a tough, competent engineer slightly falls into the dated depiction of female characters May often rights, with her instantly putting home and family before her own career, and only using her formidable engineering skills to aide her husband's endeavours, at the same time, like Marc's mother, Cyndia has a key role to play which she achieves with astonishing insight and bravery.
Marc's story was not the only unexpected plot twist here either. Indeed, though Fury and Hydra seemed mostly less threatening than they had in Diamond Mask, (a few murders notwithstanding), the fact that I couldn't quite predict Fury's ultimate plan, how the Hydra units fell into it or how this would tie in to Marc's story always kept my interest even through the less frenetic sections, and of course May was always ready to insert a small detail, a human character moment or just a funny scene into the mix even amidst lengthy political discourse, (I can't imagine another author who would set a deadly serious discussion of possible war and the affiliation of the factions involved at a grow your own mushrooms restaurant).
Speaking of politics however, May does a fantastic job in showing how a political ideal can be pushed too far, and how a group of people with shared beliefs can come to the idea that violent reprisal might be necessary, particularly as the Milieu's responses to the rebel's concerns are often high handed and dictatorial, thus making it more likely they'll fuel the fire than stamp it out. Indeed, the fact that even though we know thanks to Rogi's view of events 30 years later that eventually human unity happens, May still gives the rebel perspective a very fair hearing, not the least because Rogi himself is sympathetic to the rebel's complaints, even if he is dead against the extremes that some rebels go to.
There were some plot resolutions which only worked because of May's supreme writing style. For example, several confrontations would appear to have been resolved too easily if we weren't so behind the characters involved, and if May didn't describe these moments with enough flair to hold the reader's interest even if the outcome seemed like a forgone conclusion. Likewise, where in Diamond Mask we'd got a little idea of what life was like outside the upper echelons of society, here we stayed exclusively with the rich and powerful and the few none operants we saw were very much "happy to serve." Again however, where this would be very irritating in other authors, here May showed just how fallible and human the Remillard's and to a lesser extent other political leaders were. Indeed, in many senses the confrontation with Fury is as much a light cast on the flaws of individual members of the family, as the clan coming together to exorcise it's demon.
Similarly, several plotlines, including mental man were more threatening in conception than in execution, and in other hands might have been disappointments, but again, May's intensive focus on character made you glad that the threat wasn't quite as dire as it first appeared. Indeed, whilst this book does get extremely dark in parts, a lot of the darkness is implied rather than obvious, yet for someone who can read context, the almost Nazi like way Marc and others discuss atrocities in purely scientific or politically expedient terms is frightening in its own right. Much as I find May's pace generally slow, the way she slowly works up to the inevitable avalanche, showing both how the disaster came about, and how the minds of those who brought it about came to their desperate conclusion is wonderfully torturous.
I will admit one moment towards the end concerning Marc's wife Cyndia did slightly confuse me, and I feel genuinely torn as to whether to count it as a gorgeously described tragic circumstance, or wonder why, as a competent engineer she didn't arrange matters differently. Sadly, said moment was playing upon almost mythological (and perhaps slightly Freudian), gender depictions, accept once again the sheer poetry of the description and the feelings for the characters made it a genuinely poignant scene, and one which had massive consequences for several characters, and through them, the universe as a whole.
On the one hand, like several moments in the book, including the final confrontations with Fury and some of its servants, the end could be called a Deus ex Machina of the first order. On the other hand, May absolutely gets away with it, with writing that verges on the mystical and a plot turn that is both expected, and feared for the last three books. Indeed, this final climax even gives the ending of Rogatien Rimellard's memoires a slightly weary conclusion, although May was kind enough to give old Uncle Rogi his own happy ending after his writing was done.
All in all, Magnificat was a conclusion that absolutely lives up to expectations, indeed as I've observed with May previously, though not a well-known author, those who find her work seem to be highly dedicated fans. Though the writing is somewhat ponderous in places, and there are a few niggles with odd plot turns, obvious resolutions or her tendency to write dated; if still extremely lovable, female characters, as always with May her sheer mastery of style, wonderfully three dimensional characters and her vast and glittering universe more than compensate.
After all, as has proved the case in May's other books, this is as much about the journey, as the ultimate destination.
So, if you've got a long evening ahead, feel free to sit down with Uncle Rogi and his cat Marcelle, pour yourself a glass of fine French cognac (assuming old Rogi hasn't drunk it all first), and settle in for a long and absorbing tale of humanity and the galactic Milieu, and how Jack the Bodiless and Diamond Mask stood against the darkness to usher in a new era of human unity and peace.
Review by Dark
8.9/10 from 1 reviews
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