The Nonborn King, Julian May

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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October 1, 2012

The Nonborn King, Julian May

The Nonborn King, Julian May

The third book in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile is The Nonborn King. Taking place immediately after the events of the first two books (which I wrote about here and here), the Tanu, Firvulag, and humans find themselves in the midst of a lot of social upheaval. Aiken Drum has set himself up as the Tanu’s King and has taken Mercy Lamballe as his consort. He wants to re-work a lot of the ritual gatherings of the Tanu and Firvulag so they are less lethal–a smart choice with the reduced populations of both groups in the aftermath of the flood.

Elizabeth has retreated to Black Crag, where she has set herself up as the planet’s dirigent–a role which is not fully explained in this volume. Felice is insane and is collecting spare golden torcs to hoard them in her mountain lair in between her searches for Culluket (who is being protected by Aiken Drum).

We also find out about a group of humans who came through the time gate 28 years before the beginning of the series–Marc Remillard and the surviving members of the Metapsychic Rebellion. They came through the gate with a metric ass-ton of future tech and weapons, so were able to avoid capture by the Tanu and promptly set sail for North America. The Tanu decided to pretend it had never happened.

Despite lots of people getting killed off in The Golden Torc, there is still a pretty big and unruly cast of characters in this book –and it definitely makes it hard to keep up with what’s going on if one isn’t paying very close attention. (Attention, what’s that?) There are the Firvulag and the Howlers and a few stray Tanu who have survived the flood (notably Nodonn, who is super-important towards the end of this book and who has some seriously icky stuff happen to him by those who rescue him). There are the various groups of humans, all with their own agendas.

And then there’s Marc Remillard. His first scenes are very interesting–he is an isolated figure who likes to fish without using any of his prodigious mental powers. He is ineffably melancholy and generally described in a way that none of the other characters are–it is almost loving, really. He is an enigma wrapped in a mystery with a core of secrecy underneath it all. We know he’s done something bad but not what–and this is, I think, deliberate. May wants us to find Marc intriguing and sympathetic–and then she shows us what a cold-hearted bastard he can be when he decided to turn his son into a fish (but he got better) for interrupting his conquest of the tarpon (a kind of fish). Marc is only interested in one thing: finding a world with a coadunate Mind that will come and fetch them from their exile. To this end, he has a cerebroenergetic suit that boosts his metafaculties like whoa. He goes into the suit for a month at a time and during which time he is basically on life support. His children and the children of the other rebels are getting tired of this–so while he’s in the suit, they take one of the boats and run away to Europe (they end up in Africa because Marc ends up fucking up the winds for them).

So there’s a lot going on in this book. A LOT. And it is, for the most part, pretty interesting. We have Aiken Drum showing off his metapsychic abilities and politicking–he’s an ass, but an entertaining ass. We have Elizabeth talking Felice into letting her try to heal her, with predictably disastrous results (there are intimations that her parents may have sexually abused her as an infant and small child and that this is why she is broken–this is really offensive, for a lot of different reasons that I shouldn’t have to go into). There’s Mercy, plotting against Aiken as best she can and thwarting him at the end–and then him fucking her to death. And then there are all the new players, doing their best to manipulate everyone into doing what they thing they should do.  Up to and including creating a metaconcert program intended to kill both Aiken Drum and Felice (we see what you did there, Marc Remillard).

I am definitely still finding these books entertaining but I am also looking forward to the books set on modern-day (ish) Earth and the Galactic Milieu. There are times when all the characters doing their things feels a bit forced and I am not sure how I feel about none of the characters ever really changing–they’re all remarkably static in their characterizations which is at times really frustrating and which is, I think, a possible artifact of May’s use of archetypes for them.

I’ll be writing about the final book in the Saga of Pliocene Exile next week, then I’ll take a short detour into some other stuff before jumping into the rest of the books in this setting.

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  1. Doug M.

    I see your point about the characters not changing — but there are some epiphanies in the fourth book. Aiken Drum, in particular, goes through a character arc from silly trickster to sly schemer to self-sacrificing King. Most of that takes place in book two or book four, fair enough.

    Anyway, this book is so full of action and movement and clever schemes and sudden plot twists that it’s really hard to worry about stuff like “the characters aren’t growing or developing”. There’s so much going on! The explosive resolution with Felice; the expedition to recover the flyers, the rebellion of the Rebels’ children; the first part of the much-protracted travails of Tony Wayland. (IMS, this book starts with the siege of Wayland and Dougal — which includes the utterly hilarious bit where Dougal is musing over what kind of siege engine is going to kill them. “No, wait… a trebuchet!”)

    There are oddities. The sudden appearance of Milieu weapons everywhere seems unnecessary, and is explained by a weakish retcon. The little robot that Mercy destroys… who the heck brings an inventory robot to Six Million BC? I get the vibe that this book was written fast, after the success of the first one. That would help explain the lack of character development and the slightly forced feel, and also some of the plot hiccups. Also, the psychosexual stuff seems a bit more developed. I agree that “Felice is nuts because she was abused as a child” is problematic, but it’s less problematic than “Felice is nuts because she’s a sadomasochist”.

    Anyway: this is the least self-contained of all the books. Which is what you’d expect of the third book in a tetralogy, sure… but it’s really just a big, shiny, complicated bridge to the fourth book. (In fact, the first 2/3 of the fourth book is really a bridge to the Grand Finale. But we’ll cross that when we come to it.)

    Doug M.

    • Natalie

      I really love Dougal–I think he’s fantastic and more than a little bit sad. I also like Mr. Betsy and the way he up-ends everyone’s expectations.

      I get the sense that there’s a string of causality with Felice: the abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents made her both mentally off-balance and sadomasochistic. Both are pretty icky and problematic but as you’ve mentioned several times, not atypical for the era. Sigh.

      The retconned weapons caches really bother me as does the tremendous amount of power Mercy display with her final psychocreative act–if she is that powerful, how is Aiken Drum able to do what he does to her (apart from the fact that she is, in some ways, the opposite of Felice: she is turned on being made afraid)?

      The book really is a jumble of scenes laying out a bunch of hooks for what’s coming in the last book–we meet more characters and their conflicts/motivations are at odds with what the Exiles/Tanu/Firvulag want which, of course, sets up even more conflict.

      I think the focus on action over characterization is another artifact of the time May was writing–there are lots of SF books with cardboard characters, so it’s certainly not unusual.


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