The redoubtable Paul Di Filippo has reviewed Shadows in the Stone for Locus Online.
The Christian “heresy” of Gnosticism offers a fascinating mythos, a disturbing philosophy, and a ready-made set of fantasy props and beings that could be adapted for fictional narratives. Put very simply, Gnosticism holds that all of material creation, rather than standing as the shining example of a benign creator’s will, is a diseased prison brought into being by a malevolent demiurge, operating in defiance of the actual offstage supreme deity. Humans who have twigged to this reality have a duty to disobey all the institutions and rules that enforce our captivity. And there’s a whole hierarchy of colorful, extra-natural entities on both sides of the battle. It’s a large, heroic, rebellious and consequential belief system that should lend itself to myriad plots and storylines.
However, very few writers have plundered this belief system for novels. David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus is seen as embodying gnostic principles, although not explicitly. The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Shea & Wilson used some gnostic riffs among many other conspiratorial tokens. Inspired by Lindsay, literary critic Harold Bloom dipped his toe into fiction with The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy. Dick’s VALIS Trilogy depicts our mundane reality famously as a “Black Iron Prison,” a very gnostic concept. The Da Vinci Code notoriously deployed Gnosticism in its revisionist stew. And a small novel titled Ciphers by some guy named Di Filippo very ambitiously tried to limn a secret Gnostic underpinning to all history.
But that’s about the whole catalogue. Until now, with the publication of Jack Dann’s Shadows in the Stone, which instantly raises the bar for this type of book. Exciting, intriguing, visceral and vivid, Dann’s fantasy-rich historical adventure makes this old heresy into a living experience for characters and readers alike. Far from being abstruse and academic, a dead theme, his take on Gnosticism is living, vibrant, sensual and satisfyingly occult all at once.
We open with a chapter that has a Campbellian heft to it. That’s Joseph Campbell, he of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. As in the original Star Wars, where Luke’s family was wiped out, launching him on his quest, our protagonist, Lucian ben-Hananiah will be orphaned by cruel forces and set adrift to pursue his fate.
Lucian is a member of a community of Essenes in the Middle East of the 1400s. This clan guards the Gnostic secrets that the rest of Christianity denies. Just turned thirteen and heir to the tribe’s leadership, Lucian undergoes an initiation ritual that finds him meeting the “upper aeon and archangel” Gabriel, who endows him with certain sensitivities to the underlying true state of the universe. (Gabriel becomes an important player for the rest of the book, always charmingly tutelary.) But before Lucian can use these new talents for his people, the whole tribe is slaughtered by the Knights of Cain, who demand the secrets held by the Essenes. Lucian alone escapes, thanks to help from secret sympathizers.
We next jump to Italy, some years later. Lucian is twenty-one, and a lowly servant—hiding his abilities, unsure of himself—in the house of Pico Della Mirandola, sage, kabbalist, and general all-round wizard. The household also includes Pietro Neroni, Mirandola’s apprentice; Isabella Sabatina, young cousin under Mirandola’s care; and Agnolo Baldassare, who is acting as the medium, or scryer, for his boss, allowing Mirandola to peer into his magical stone for cosmic visions.
When Lucian finally exhibits his own unsuspected powers, superior to Baldassare’s, new vistas open for Mirandola’s researches. But before any coherent program can get underway, adversaries both temporal and supernatural stage their attacks. On the mortal front, Mirandola and company are being sought by civic and religious authorities right up to the level of the Pope (who, we must recall, is the Bad Guy). This causes them to flee. But they are also being harassed in other dimensions, by the Dark Aeons led by Belias.
To complicate matters even further, we are introduced to Louisa Mary Morgan, a young girl from the era of America’s Civil War. She is yanked through time back to 1400s Florence, to assume her new duties as an avatar of Sophia, the supreme Gnostic mother.
The rest of the book—whose action encompasses only a few objective days—is a long pursuit through Florence, to other cities, finally culminating in a showdown on all planes of existence. Dann employs easy shifts of viewpoint amongst Lucian, Mirandolla and the two girls, Isabella and Louisa, giving a multivalent perspective on events. And what events they are! A ride on a Renaissance airship powered by spirits; escape through secret tunnels; precarious refuge in castles and other venues. All of the cultural apparatus and the physicality of the era is rendered in minute and convincing details that never become burdensome, doled out by Dann, via his obviously extensive researches, in just the right measure. (The book is cousin to Dann’s other Renaissance novel, The Memory Cathedral.)
Dann’s prose is never over-archaic or fusty, but neither is it modern. He achieves a very readable otherness, allowing us to enter the spirit of his chosen time and place. Here’s a good example. Pietro, who comes to have the magical scrying stone literally embedded in his flesh, finds he can control a pride of lions living as “watchdogs” in the city.
“[The lion] ran across the piazza, gnashing and tearing at anyone unfortunate enough to be in its way. Its sensorium overwhelmed, it ran through the screams and smells, slipping on wet stones, swiping its claws at a porphyry statue of a crouching lion as it crossed a bridge. It paused behind the church of San Zaccaria, sniffing at its moon-white facade, then circled the convent. There was something inside the squat brick building, a sapphire lodestone that the lion perceived as comfort and satiation; but against its will the lion moved on, moved away from the discordant clamor of nuns and daughters of patricians who were entertaining eligible guests. Although it yearned for raw flesh and warm blood, the lion skirted around the crowded piazattas and campos and made its way north thorough ramo side streets and dead-silent alleys.”
In this one masterful paragraph we get cultural details, emotions, a sensual onslaught, and action. It’s typical of the whole book, whether describing earthly or celestial events.
A wealth of very lively and unforgettable ancillary characters fleshes out the cast as well, and Dann always makes sure to grant each individual a full measure of moral complexity.
With flavors of the work of Gene Wolfe and John Crowley, James Morrow and K.J. Parker, Dann’s new book is guaranteed to take the reader on a whirlwind journey of danger and enlightenment behind the cardboard reality we mistake for the universe’s true substance.