This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
We’re running behind on our #SPSFC deliveries, so let’s get moving! Next up for our Team Space Leftovers semi-finalists is Percival Gynt and the Conspiracy of Days, by Drew Melbourne.
I found myself halfway through this book with no notes whatsoever to make into a review. I was just reading the story and enjoying the crazy ride. This book is solid Hitchhiker’s Guide-level space fantasy, with added insane tech wizardry and world building, and a sprinkling of Space Nazis (although they don’t like to be called that). All in all, this story was a lot of fun and I enjoyed myself immensely.
Our tale opens on the titular Percival Gynt, accountant with a haunted past, and his non-titular but extremely cool umbrella, which almost certainly also has a haunted past. Percival meets a mysterious woman who steals (among other things) his hat and heart, and that’s where the trouble starts.
The year is 20018, a nicely exotic period in the future that still enables us to say “oh right, the 19980s were the ’80s, the 19940s were the ’40s, and so on.” The book is set, in fact, exactly eighteen thousand years after the year it was written. There’s still basically all the things we have today, just made a bit future-y. This kind of bugged me on some level, but I do get why the narrative device exists. We can’t go around making up entire new future histories, cultures, pop culture and restaurants. The reader wouldn’t stand for it anyway. So the result is a necessary dance between amusingly-and-comfortingly-familiar-shorthand and this-isn’t-even-a-thing-in-2023-anymore-why-is-it-a-thing-in-20018 – a dance that Melbourne performs with aplomb and very little tripping.
Things get a bit weird when Percival, and his new companions Tarot and Um, go to a giant cube in space made by a magician, but all I can advise for the slowly-panicking reader is – well, to borrow a phrase from the giants on whose shoulders we’re standing – don’t. Without revealing too much of the plot, which is a layered dessert of secrets and twists, back-stories and excellent science-fantasy concepts, I will do my best to explain what is going on and what I liked about it.
At the centre of our also-titular Conspiracy of Days is the concept that a machine, called the Engine, is destroying the universe. This has actually been going on for some time, but nobody really notices because part of destroying the universe is destroying it retroactively as well, so nobody actually knows or remembers what has gone missing – except the conspiracists with their backup data. A very cool concept for a sci-fi villain. It has some funky effects on time, memories, and character interactions and backstories, too. When the malevolent Driver is removed from the Engine and hidden away in a safe … let’s say ‘place’ … the immediate threat is defused – but for how long?
It’s up to Percival, his friends and family, and his many, many issues, to find the Driver and the Engine and stop the universe from continuing to always-having-been destroyed.
I greatly enjoyed the Adamsesque infodumps at the start of some of the chapters, and would happily have read a whole book (or at least a large appendix or wiki) of just those amusing and interesting asides about technology, history, and daily life in the … shit, what, the Two Hundredth Century? Maybe an addition to drewmelbourne.com, what do you think?
My only minor gripe, and it is very minor, was that I was half-expecting the Mandela Effect to come into play as a plot point once the widespread rewritten history phenomenon came into the story and people wound up living in versions of the universe that they hadn’t lived in before, their memories no longer dependable and individual experiences varying depending on where they were at the time. It was tantalisingly close but didn’t quite manage to slip in. Could have linked this storyline to the real-world present in a fun “you may just have a gremlin in your house” kind of way. But ah well. The plot thread with the Devil was excellent, and more than made up for any minor disappointment for this greedy reader. And the pipeline between conspiracy kooks and fascism was never so hilariously illustrated.
Just as Melbourne walked the line between amusingly-and-comfortingly-familiar-shorthand and this-isn’t-even-a-thing-in-2023-anymore-why-is-it-a-thing-in-20018, so too did he navigate the line between horny and genteel. The result was innocent funny stuff, not particularly raunchy but most certainly horny in a charming kind of way. I give it an Arthur Dent and Trillian in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy out of a possible Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian in the porno version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that I will leave you to Google on your own time and computer. Warning: there’s even more head than you’d expect.
Surprisingly plentiful! Just when you fall into the trap of thinking Percival Gynt and the Conspiracy of Days actually is a Douglas Adams story, it reveals that it has a shocking capacity for quite harrowing violence. I award it three and a half quivering bloody flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
There’s a whole lot of the good stuff here too, as you would expect from a story with such a wonderful setting and premise. The advanced-tech-appears-as-magic trope is all well and good, but there seems like there’s solid magic in this one as well. As a known genre bender myself I am in full support of this literary conceit, and it’s the year 20K so there should be shit we don’t understand (as well as Starbucks). The WTF-o-meter was a bit discombobulated by the whole thing and has grabbed hold of the last thing I said, and so awarded it a Starbuck and Starbuck drinking Starbucks in a Starbucks out of a possible … I don’t know, is that a crude hand-drawn sketch of Rupert Grint and Percival by Gustav Klimt performing Peer Gynt in a Geared Pint? That’s fucking odd is what that is.
My Final Verdict
The whole story really seemed to begin losing coherence at the end, which may have been a combination of an intentional storytelling device and my own slowly-unravelling sanity and concentration due to weirdness and sleep-deprivation, but – well, if it was intentional, it didn’t land quite right. And if it was unintentional, it was maybe a little off-putting and unfortunate. But damn it all, I still liked it. I was well and truly won back by Wotan and Mecha-Thor in the final moments, and all was well in the world. Four stars!
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