A Planet, Several Moons and a WORLD

My reading list is always long, all the more so now that, just for fun, I’m doing a university course in 20th century American fiction: Hemingway, Faulkner, Updike, Pynchon, Morrison, et al. I have some definite gaps in my life reading list. To clear my path to the Excited States of Narrative, I eagerly finished another novel by one of my discoveries of the summer, a Scottish writer named Andrew O’Hagan. Our Fathers was filled with beautiful writing and memorable characters, and his Be Near Me took me far away from Ottawa. Amazing stuff, really. The incidental descriptions of youth, education, social mores and fads are wonderfully quotable, and I will be using them.

Even more interestingly, before I could dive into the short stories of a youthful Ernest Hemingway for class, I had to finish another labour of love and annoyance. Annoying, because it was a first novel by another mid-20s writer, while mine remains on the dream shelf. Lovely, because the author is not only Canadian, he’s a home boy, my eldest son’s good buddy Jon. The world he has invented was beginning to hatch when Jon August McRae was in my grade 11 Writers’ Workshop in my home town high school. How cool is that, friends and (long-distance) neighbours? As long as I can restrain the muttering, teeth-grinding excesses of envy – which, fortunately, is most of the time – it is delightful to have read speculative fiction of such depth and quality from a kid who not only lounged in my living room but doodled during my English class.

At 16, Jon was drawing and scribbling and mentally living the fantastic lives of Jupiter and Io. (To tell the truth, as fine a writer as he was even then, Jon didn’t ace the course. He had some incomplete assignments, because he knew what he wanted to write and it sure wasn’t The Business Letter.) And he never entirely stopped, to the point that the first novel in his Lost and Found Souls series is out, the second is growing in his lap-top and sketchbook, and the narrative of the third novel has been roughed out.

And guess what? Io: First Book of Lost and Found Souls is a terrific read. It is a richly-imagined world with its own history, language conventions, and mythology. I mentioned Jon’s sketchbook because I am certain, knowing his drawing talent and the novel’s majestic descriptions, that he has already drawn these places, characters and events. It is a world of noble and ignoble Lords, sorcerers and causes, and young Io and his intended bride, Jupiter, are swept up in the chaos of rivalry, exile and war.

I’d heard about Io from time to time, and I ordered it immediately when Young Whippersnapper McRae bashfully let me know it was available. I felt bashful, too: there was no doubt Jon’s former writing creature was going to buy the book, but what if I hated it? Jon is well-nigh family, after all. I sighed with grinning relief not long after cracking the plain black cover, because I knew I was in good hands only a few pages in. It was no surprise that Jon could write, that he could craft some fine sentences, but I was no less impressed for all that. His descriptions, especially of place, are remarkably good; they come from an author with a full toolbox and a great eye, who has seen these places and not just once.

Where are we? We meet Io and Jupiter first as young inhabitants of a walled city in a medieval world. His father is a hunter, her daddy is a morose and mysterious blacksmith. There are whispers of disloyalty, rumours of siege and, before long, hints that there are more than workaday talents at play. When Io and Jupiter, out of juvenile curiosity and recklessness, bluff their peasant way into the castle of Lord Adrastea, they are caught up in political currents and occult powers – some of them, their own – that lead to the separation and suffering of these two loving young friends. One is imprisoned, one is exiled. One tries to survive as an enslaved gladiator, one comes under the tutelage of a nearly silent sorcerer. Each becomes more central to the battle for the city-state of Adrastea, and the broader struggle for power in the entire kingdom of Askasha. There is a palpable, though sometimes confusing, history to this place, and we are led to care about the events there, as well as the personalities that enact and witness them.

And it’s not literary candy. The language is rich, and the interior landscapes of the main characters are serious and detailed, though sometimes challenging to penetrate. The action sequences are full of colour and sensation, though there were times I felt lost. For example, a sudden outbreak of violence, fairly early in the novel when the young Jupiter and Io do bloody battle to earn themselves their respective punishments, confused me. I wasn’t sure what they were fighting, and especially why. This incident is key to creating the movement of the plot, but perhaps too lurchingly. Some of this mystery is intentional, I’m sure, for both Io and Jupiter – get the astronomical hint? He is a moon to her, and not the opposite, as we might expect in swords and sorcery – are also confused by the forces that drive and transform them. The dialogue occasionally gets a little stiff and long-winded, as can happen in fantastic medieval worlds.

Yet McRae has a good ear for dialogue, too, which shows especially in bantering conversations between Io and his cousin Ganymede. (Yes, it is another moon of Jupiter. Two points for you!) There is almost none of the awkwardly explanatory dialogue that one might expect from a youthful first-time novelist. In the conversations, in the historical depth behind each character and event, and especially in the visual depiction of this time and place, this book conjures a world that a reader can inhabit and feel. By times, I wanted just a little less pre-history and geographical detail; it reminded me a bit of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in that way. Sometimes the narration got dense. The novel certainly wants a map, and I suspect that Jon August McRae has drawn several of them that are not available in this early edition.

Jon describes this self-published effort as a “zero print-run” edition to a speculative fiction series that he will continue to pitch to mainstream publishers. I hope it is someday able to appear in full, cartographically illustrated form, because it is good, good stuff. Io rewards a thoughtful reader, and if you like fantasy – there are full-bodied echoes of the best of Tolkien here, too – you’ll be impressed by this maiden voyage. While the book awaits a more fitting publication, you don’t have to wait. It’s easy to order your own copy of a well-imagined adventure (and a decidedly unusual love story) by simply e-mailing the author at . I recommend it.

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