To the arctic north lies the city of New Venice, standing alone, surrounded by miles of frozen wasteland. Steampunk technology provides heat and light and food and other necessities enabling the city - which to all intents and purposes is owned and run by a wealthy elite, the ruling council, with a small but ruthlessly efficient secret police known as the 'Gentlemen of the Night' and a military corps, the 'Subtle Army' - to expand and its citizenry, with little else to preoccupy them, concentrate on building a hedonistic utopia of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll served with a veneer of political revolution.
But the ruling council are determined to stamp out the faintest whiff of change to the status quo. The publication of a revolutionary book 'A Blast On The Barren Land' has them searching for the author to make an example of him and the Gentlemen of the Night are cracking down on the drug trade, slowly eroding the citizen's rights in the name of 'protecting their liberty'. At the same time they are engineering a war with the local Inuit tribes by usurping hunting rights and land title and all the while a strange black airship hovers over the city. Close friends, Brentford Orsini and Gabriel d'Allier, navigate their way amidst this turmoil, eventually escaping the city and heading where they believe all hope for the future lies, in solving the riddles of a series of ghostly visions and bizarre signals that emanate from the pole itself.
By all accounts Valtat is a French academic turned author and this, his third novel, is the first to be originally written in English rather than translated from French; would that all of us could write English as well. Resting within some unashamedly florid yet beautiful prose is a story with a subtle depth and complexity that, while difficult to fall in love with at times, is impossible to discard or ignore, rewarding the patient reader with a tale rich in political intrigue, sexual shenanigans, drug-fueled binges and fast action sequences that is told with beauty and wonder and humour in abundance.
The world building is superb. His descriptions of New Venice, its buildings and the life therein are rich and imaginative, seldom letting 10 words do when 20 or 30 would do better, but this stylised and florid prose, chock-full of narrative asides and odd references to previous adventures it is assumed we are familiar with, is clearly designed to mimic the writing style of the period and, while occasionally a tad dense and difficult to wade through, all add to the subtle flavours of the dish as a whole.
Sure it has all the trappings of the steampunk genre, giant airships, pneumatic tubes, Victorian dress and social mores and science at the heart of everything, but where too many books focus on this aspect of the story, emphasising their steampunk credentials, Valtat's book has richer layers of political, ethical and social comment, all of which clearly resonate with current world events and make Aurorarama the richer read because of it.
Without doubt this is intelligent science fiction that recalls much of Wells and Verne or, more recently, Powers and Stirling/Gibson but it also puts one in mind of more contemporary work from the likes of Miéville, Pullman and Hunt and without hesitation I'd recommend it to fans of any of those authors or just to those who like to be challenged and seek real depth in their fiction. A superb read and one of the few I shall return to.