Feb 21, 12
Read from December 20, 2011 to February 21, 2012
Ian McDonald is a marvellously skilled writer. He writes prose like a musician, and, like a musician with an interest in finding different sounds, he plays with new and exciting instruments from faraway lands... Well, he certainly immerses his novels in local lingo and speech rhythms. Hats off and massive kudos to that.
His novels - the two I have read - are set in relatively near futures, in unconventional settings: Brazil, or Turkey, or other nations that are neither USA / Europe (nor Japan or China).
Brasyl is set in three eras of Brasil: 1730s, 2006, and 2033. The novel interweaves the tales of a monk (and a scientific explorer), travelling up the rivers to find a renegade monk and his little empire of slavery (with a start that has a similar atmosphere to Apocalypse Now), the tale of a woman TV producer coming up with concepts for exploitative reality TV dreck, and the story of a young man desperate to make something of himself by means of street smarts, enterprise and bravado (not to mention multiple different personas he uses, and a bit of crime).
All of this is linked by quantum theory, and parallel worlds / quantum computing based scifi stuff.
Unfortunately, I did not really get as invested in Brasyl as I did in the Dervish House - hence several multi-week breaks in my reading of the book. Brasyl gets so immersed in the language of Brasil that I basically struggled to keep up with it. Sometimes, the writing briefly drifts into Glen Duncan-esque filth - but unlike Glen Duncan's work, the novel only has a handful of such moments, rather than being infused through and through. Sometimes, the trick of repeating a word for emphasis (saying "the cold cold winter" rather than the "very cold winter") is overused a little - it feels like genuine speech rhythm, but it happens so often, it starts feeling a little bit artificial.
Apart from minor stylistic points, the main reasons why I struggled with Brasyl were the plot (I basically failed to understand what was going on, or to believe it) and the characters (none of whome I found likeable people). Ian McDonald writes about hungry people - not literally, but hungry for success, hungry for climbing career ladders in their chosen fields, hungry for status and achievement. And that kind of hunger is really a kind of greed... The Dervish House lived and breathed with its little boy protagonist, and the old professor. Brasyl lacks such sympathetic heroes.
The plot, meanwhile, often changes course. Our monk-seeking-crazy-monk story turns from Apocalypse Now to some strange epic tale. The young man in the future has a strange story arc that would be difficult to describe or sum up. All three stories are eventually interconnected, but I cannot say that the connections really felt convincing - my disbelief failed to be suspended.
So, it is a beautifully written novel, with an exciting setting, originality, flair, and unfortunately, a befuddling plot and characters that may not be that easy to like. It is worth a read for anyone with an interest in science fiction, and I certainly think Ian McDonald is a writer whose books I will continue to buy and read (I'd say he's up there with China Mieville for talent and energy), but I have to admit, Brasyl was hard going at times.