The Priests of Ferris by Maurice Gee

The Priests of Ferris book cover
Rating 6.5/10
I wish the priests had been beastlier.

The Priests of Ferris in some ways strongly resembles Lewis's Prince Caspian. In one year of human time a century has passed on O, and the exploits of Nick and Susan have become a legend. A boy, Limpy, arrives from O however to beg help from Nick and Susan to save his sister Soona from a despotic new, and far more human enemy that now rules the world of O.

It is however in the identity of this threat that Gee becomes unique, since the idea of a malevolent priesthood who prey to Susan as their god is likely one which never would've occurred to Lewis.

Most of what we learn of the Priests and their regime comes from Limpy, and Gee sets them up to be an insidious, and yet at the same time very human enemy. Gee gives Limpy's story little details here and there that paint a very stark picture, like the account of how his father distrusted the priesthood, so the priest decided that the lame Limpy would be banned from crewing the fishing boats that he loved, or the account of how his sister Soona refused priest training and then was chosen as a sacrifice to Susan.

Even the Priests' method of executing heretics, claiming that like the divine Susan they should be able to fly and hurling them from a cliff in a wonderfully twisted version of the hang gliding episode from the original book shows a level of darkness that sets up the priests as an entirely believable but terrifying threat.

The problem however, is much of this doesn't deliver. Throughout most of the book the priests only appear as white suited figures chasing the protagonists around the world of O, much as the Halfmen did previously, but without the Halfmen's overbearing nastiness. Even the Ferris bones worn by the priests, the shin bones of executed heretics do not increase their level of menace.

I was actually quite disappointed that though Limpy and his people are introduced very believably we never actually enter Limpy's home or really get to see the human society controlled by the priests up close; for all that Limpy himself is a very nicely rounded character. I love the way he tells Nick that calling him "Limpy" after his lame leg is not cruel because it is the truth of how things are, and yet he is extremely sad that his disability has been used as an excuse to bar him from the thing he loves best (a very realistic reaction).

It is odd, since for all its other issues Priests of Ferris does iron out many of the problems of the previous book. Susan and Nick take far more charge of their own destiny; most of the supporting characters are far more than just one note affairs (though sadly the one woodlander character isn't one of them), and we get a more complete look at some of the other people's of O, notably the Bird people. There is even a brutal and alien new race, the Vaags, giant savage polar bears who communicate through mental pictures, however over all I very much had the feeling that there was a much darker, more human story that I was missing. There are some moments where this is achieved, the description of Susan growing apart from Nick at the start of the book, and her hard determination to prove her own lack of divinity to the priests, not to mention a truly shocking visit to the Stone folk and a very worrying section describing Soona being made up and dressed for her sacrifice, but it seemed more often than not Gee retreated into safer lighter territory most of the time where actually the themes he was dealing with, a religious control over society required something just a little darker, a little more hard hitting, particularly since he does have one or two stabs at a moral (although a rather understated one).

As with Halfmen of O, Gee does step up his game towards the conclusion, but even here it feels as if he pulls back slightly. When Limpy revealed that his sister was to be sacrificed, I originally thought this sacrifice would be necessarily something different to being thrown from the cliff with all the other heretics; however this is exactly what is going to happen, indeed one section quite disturbed me when Susan and Soona witness several bystanders being executed in the same way, and their reaction was generalized regret even though most of the book has been an effort to save Soona from the same fate. This to me was far too redolent of "nothing bad should be allowed to happen to main characters", or possibly even "nothing bad should be allowed to happen to young female characters", either way, that scene was probably more disturbing to me than Gee intended for the wrong reasons.

On the plus side, the contrast between Susan, by now an experienced traveller with a purpose, and the timid but not entirely helpless Soona was very well drawn, and though I do wish he'd appeared earlier to give some face to the otherwise rather bland priests, the High Priest is a definitely fascinating villain with his own motivations and ideas. The way Gee handles the High Priests' actual beliefs surrounding Susan's divinity and the history of how the priesthood began in the fall of the Halfmen is both fascinating and unexpected. Again however, once we've met the high priest the conclusion seemed to fall flat mostly because Gee did not quite go far enough with the peril or jeopardy to his characters, quite a contrast to the tense confrontation with Otis Claw that concluded the previous book.

It is odd, Priests of Ferris does a lot right, but over all my feeling was that much had been missed, indeed I do wonder if the story we have is rather more severely edited than Gee intended. The style is still there, the magic is still there, but with a refusal to really get stuck in to the darker theme of the book and a retreat back to just the same chase around the wild's style of action (which also comes off as far less interesting given these are the same wilds we've seen from the first book), Gee didn't quite convince me here.

Priests of Ferris has some wonderful moments, but moments is generally all they are, had it maintained the same quality it begins with and really got stuck in to its more serious subject matter I'd have definitely rated it more highly, but as it is while it certainly addresses the problems of the first book, it definitely has its own, albeit lovers of the world of O will probably still relish a return visit.

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