This time I’m recommending a modern Fantasy Classic which I feel that more readers should know about. Martha Wells’ `Wheel of the Infinite’ was first published by EOS in 2000, with a wonderful cover illustration by Donato Giancola. It is well worth seeking out a second-hand copy of this beautiful edition. In spite of the outstanding quality of this novel, the original publishers let it go out of print. Happily in 2011 the author claimed back her rights and brought out an inexpensive ebook edition with a cover which features the novel’s unforgettable black heroine, Maskelle.

Maskelle belongs to the Kushorit people who dominate the Celestial Empire. This empire is ruled by an Emperor but the priests and priestesses of the Koshan Order wield great spiritual power, especially the ones who channel the Voices of the Ancestors. Maskelle was once the Voice of the Adversary, the dangerous one amongst the guardian spirits, but many years before she was cursed as a traitor and banished from the Empire. Now she has been summoned back to the sacred city of Duvalpore by the Celestial One, the elderly cleric who heads the Koshan Order.

As she travels towards Duvalpore in the company of a troupe of actors and puppeteers, Maskelle uses her still considerable powers to rescue a young barbarian warrior from a band of raiders. The warrior, whose name is Rian, attaches himself to his rescuer. This proves to be a good thing since someone is determined that Maskelle shall not return to Duvalpore. Maskelle and her party survive a series of supernatural attacks and arrive in the city to a hostile reception from the young Emperor and his Chancellor.

During an annual ceremony in the great Marai temple an image of the world known as the Wheel of the Infinite is created from coloured sand. Every hundred years this rite takes on a special significance and the Voices believe that they are literally recreating the world. Maskelle has been summoned because something is going terribly wrong with this Hundred Year Rite. A `living storm’ is damaging sections of the map however often it is renewed. The Celestial One thinks that only the Voice of the Adversary can discover how and why this is happening but Maskelle fears that the demon-like Adversary no longer speaks to her. If she can’t find out who is attacking the Wheel of the Infinite, her whole world may be irrevocably changed or even destroyed.

`Wheel of the Infinite’ combines some of the best qualities of Fantasy and Mystery fiction with a dash of Horror. Wells has drawn on elements of Buddhism and Far Eastern ancestor cults to create a society with an unusually convincing set of rituals and beliefs. I’m assuming that she was inspired by the extraordinary `sand mandalas’ which Tibetan monks make out of dyed sand or crushed stone and then ritually destroy. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to enjoy this novel, just open to interesting ideas about how the world works.  Hot and humid Duvalpore, with its canals, street-markets and pleasure gardens and its terraced temples, shimmers in my mind after a recent rereading of the novel. Once the sacred city is vividly established, Wells brings off the coup of eerily transforming it during the last few chapters.

The complex culture of the Celestial Empire may seem alien and hard to understand but outsider Rian asks all the questions that the reader will want answered. This is typical of Wells’ skill as a storyteller. She confines herself to two viewpoint characters, Rian and Maskelle, who have both been through major traumas, and only gradually reveals their secrets. The novel works as a bizarre Whodunnit. Maskelle and Rian search for clues to the perpetrators of a cosmic crime and deal with an exotic femme fatale, ensorcelled witnesses and mysterious deaths.  Wells even comes up with a highly original method of isolating all the main suspects by stranding them in an apparently empty alien city. Then she builds up the suspense as Maskelle and her allies are forced to split up to search for unseen enemies while stalked by a cursed puppet. When this talking puppet escapes from its box, and the genre you think you are reading, it could really make you shudder.

Mystery of a different kind is provided by the enigmatic character of rule-breaker Maskelle. Mature heroines are still a rarity in Fantasy but Maskelle is most definitely a woman with an interesting past. In the early chapters it’s easy to take an immediate liking to Maskelle as she bears muddy discomfort with good humour, frets about the grey in her hair and wishes she was ten years younger. Then, as hints are dropped about the terrible things Maskelle has done because of her belief in a vision of destruction, you wonder if you have been tricked into sympathising with a paranoid murderess. She claims to have been obeying a higher power – the Adversary – but does this absolve of her of any blame for her actions? The question haunts the novel and Maskelle. She is shown as a woman who enjoys taking lovers but doesn’t believe that she deserves to be loved. Obstinate Rian is a good match for her because of the mistakes and regrets in his own past and their understated love story is a touching one. I wish the novel told us more about Maskelle’s relationships with her long-dead husbands and her estranged son but that is an indication of how intriguing Wells’  heroine is.

I’m sure it was no coincidence that `Wheel of the Infinite’ was published in a milennium year, when fears about the possible end of the world were rife. The traditional Tibetan sand mandalas were symbols both of the impermanence of life and of its constant renewal. In the Celestial Empire, the sand-wheel also represents the interconnectedness of all life and the story shows how making an apparently small change can set off a catastrophic chain of events. Symbol becomes reality during the Hundred Year Rite – `Through it the world is remade in its own image.’  Barbarian Rian finds this truth as difficult to accept as most modern Westerners would but he sees the consequences play out in an astonishing way. As a reader, you are free simply to regard the Wheel of the Infinite as a clever plot device but Wells’ novel does explore the challenging idea that we are all responsible for creating the world that we live in. So let’s make it a good one. Happy Easter.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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