The Many Coloured Land by Julian May

As a general rule, a good book will grab your attention, if not from the first page, then within the first chapter. Personally, I often find that if a book hasn’t earned my interest after the first few chapters then it’s probably destined for re-housing in the charity shop. There are a few rare cases where just when I’m about to give up, the book really starts to get going. The Many Coloured Land is one of those cases.

The Many Coloured Land took nineteen chapters before the plot really took off and became engaging. To put it another way, I felt that during the entire first half I was completely lost between time travel, psychic abilities, interstellar travel and strange alien races. Add to that the completely new terminology used in the 21st century Galactic Milieu, as well as sporadic bits of French, and I felt like I was drowning in confusion. It all felt a bit disorganised, and I was more than ready to give up. However, I’m glad that I stuck with it, as it became much easier to get through and was in fact very well thought out.

At first the plot seems quite disjointed. The prologue was the longest battle for me, as it seemed so drawn out that it put me off reading the rest of the novel. The prologue consists of three chapters outlining a crash landing of an alien ship on earth during the Pliocene Epoch, approximately five million years ago. There are two warring alien species on board this ship, which are the tall and beautiful Tanu and the ogre-like Firvulag. There is plenty of description here, but bizarrely it’s mostly of the scenery and surrounding area. The prologue then jumps to the 20th century, where at some point alien races from the Galactic Milieu essentially invaded Earth, and decided that Earth qualified to join the Galactic Milieu peacefully. The prologue moves to a town in 20th century France, where a researcher has discovered the secret to time travel. The researcher has managed to open up a portal which allows objects to be sent back in time, but only to the Pliocene era. Unfortunately, this is a one way trip only, as he is unable to retrieve the objects once they are sent there. Several alien races have come to see a display of this time travelling miracle, but there is very little description of what each race looks like, and the reader isn’t given any time to understand who is who or what purpose they serve. It seems a bit suspicious to me that this select group of aliens show a particular interest in this new discovery, while other unmentioned races are less than impressed. Perhaps this is revealed later in the series.

Once the prologue ends, the reader is thrown into the 21st century, where aliens are an everyday part of life, as is interstellar travel. Time travel has never advanced from that first display, but for years the researcher’s wife secretly sold tickets to people wanting to go back to the Pliocene era. Due to the unexpected high demand for this service, the Galactic Milieu officially sanctioned the time machine, and named the procedure ‘Exile’. The author gets straight into introducing new characters, who are spread throughout the galaxy, each with a different reason for choosing Exile. The next fifteen or so chapters are devoted to introducing the eight characters who drive the plot: There is Aiken, a sociopathic delinquent who chooses exile over a death sentence, Metapsychic Felice, an athlete with sociopathic tendencies who chooses Exile after attacking team mates and becoming banned from the games, Bryan who is trying to find his long lost love, Claude the palaeontologist, Annamaria the nun, Stein who heroically dreams of becoming a Viking, Elizabeth who was a talented metapsychic but lost her powers after a traumatic event, and Richard, who was sued by an alien space crew for everything he has, and believes he has no other choice. Considering the point of the first part of the novel was to introduce the characters, they didn’t seem very developed, and unfortunately, at this point in the book, I didn’t care about them. The only ones I liked were Aiken and Felice, and I think it says a lot that the most likeable characters were both sociopaths. The others just seemed a bit bland, but they do become more interesting later.

It is during these introductions that another new theme is introduced, of metapsychic abilities. For unknown reasons, humans have developed the capabilities of psychic powers. There are two kinds of metapsychic abilities: Latent powers, which are unconsciously used by an individual, and Operant powers, which are consciously controlled by the individual. Metapsychic powers include the usual abilities such as mind control and the ability to move objects with the mind, and also include more unusual ones such as Creativity, which is the ability to create illusions, and Redaction, which is the ability to psychically heal or hurt another person. Both Operant and Latent individuals can have a number of metapsychic abilities, with varying levels of strength in each. Those with Operant powers are not allowed to go through Exile, meaning that those in the Pliocene era only have Latent abilities... Or so the Galactic Milieu believes anyway.

All the characters come together to form ‘Group Green’, who will travel back in time together as a team. They all spend some time training together before they leave, in order to learn basic survival skills. I was quite surprised by how little time the author spent on this, considering the great length she went to in order to make the rest of the novel so vivid. I felt that it didn’t really show how the characters interacted with each other, and it would have been nice to see how they behaved together before their disastrous trip back in time. Aside from that, I would have been very interested to find out exactly how to survive sabre tooth tiger attacks and the like! I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed that I’ll never know.

So, Group Green finally set off on their time travelling adventure. This is the point where the novel really begins to come into its own. They believe they have found Utopia, but in fact they land in a nightmare. The Tanu and Firvulag have taken over the continent of Europe, and are at war with each other. The Tanu are the strongest race, due to having the strongest metapsychic abilities, and they have enslaved almost every human who has ever entered Exile. The humans are firstly separated into male and female groups for (ahem) breeding purposes, and are then placed into a ranking system according to the strength of their metapsychic abilities. The Tanu have strong mind control powers, and control their subjects through torcs, which are simply glorified collars. The Tanu wear gold torcs, which in turn control the silver and grey torcs worn by their human slaves. The silver torc is given to humans who display strong Latent abilities, and enhance these Latent powers so that they become Operant. The grey torc signifies the lowest rank, and is given to humans who possess no latent abilities but have other useful skills such as medical knowledge or strength.

I was quite impressed by the idea of the Tanu and Firvulag, and the amount of research the author clearly did while writing the series. After doing a bit of research myself, I realised that the author was quite clever with her names – the Tanu and Firvulag are both taken from Celtic mythology, with the words scrambled up a bit to make them sound a bit more ‘otherworldly’. The Tanu come from the Irish gods ‘Tuatha De Danaan’ while the Firvulag are a kind of goblin like race called ‘Fir Bolg’, who were the enemies of the Tuatha De Danaan. Most of the alien character names and city names are taken from Celtic mythology too.

The most difficult problem I had was the language used by the author when setting the scene. The author has the tendency to get a bit carried away on occasion, and seems to think that long descriptions provide great imagery. Although this is normally true in The Many Coloured Land, there are a few points where instead of painting a vivid picture, it makes the book seem a bit tedious and slows the plot. There was one particular episode which sticks out in my mind, where the characters themselves seemed to lose the ability for coherent language. I understand that it was written in the eighties, and that times have changed a bit, but I find it hard to believe that when being tortured anyone would ever respond by exclaiming “I hate you and diminish you and cover you with excrement”. Aside from that particular incident, the characters were generally quite believable.

I also felt a bit gutted that the author dedicated a whole section of the book describing the Galactic Milieu and the idea of interstellar voyages, only to take it all away in order to send a bunch of misfits and delinquents back to a time where fire hadn’t even been discovered. I know that there were more aliens there to keep it interesting, but I still wanted more of the futuristic 21st century.

It is important to note that The Many Coloured Land is not intended to be a standalone book. It serves as an introduction to a much larger saga. Julian May has written nine books, which are all interconnected with each other. The Many Coloured Land is the first of four books in the Saga of Pliocene Exile, while the Galactic Milieu Series acts as a prequel. You can start the series with either The Many Coloured Land or Intervention.

This book has been described several times as ‘fresh and original’. Well, I can definitely agree that I’ve never read anything like it before! There is a whole bunch of ideas and themes all crammed into the plot – from time travel and ancient aliens at war, to psychic abilities and interstellar travel. Although I felt that the first half of the book was a bit of a nightmare, I’m glad I fought my way through till the end. I think it sets itself up for the next book in the series very well, and since the novel certainly does not shy away from a complex plot, I expect there to be more plot and character twists in the future.

7/10 Perfect for anyone who is ready to begin their next epic saga

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