Okay, the rundown is as follows. This is a brilliant, beautiful work. It's also really huge, but Clive Barker manages to fill each page with something while perhaps not compelling, at least interesting to read. The story is of John Furie "Gentle" Zacharias, a con man with mysterious powers; and his friend, guide, and eventual lover Pie'oh'Pah. It is also about the various people in their lives, and how they may be affected by an event known as "the Reconciliation", the time for which is quickly approaching. The good are the brilliant imagery, lavish descriptions, complex characters, and dense, epic plot. The bad is that this is a slow read at first until it eventually gets going. And the pacing is still weird after that.
But in the end, this is a book well worth your time. And your money. Buy this, read it, and enjoy a hallucinatory fantasy epic with some genuine surreality and darkness to it.
More, as always, below.
"Why would I forget a power like the Pneuma?"
"Either because it wasn't useful to you any longer--"
"Which is doubtful."
"Or because you were trying to forget."
- Gentle and Pie'oh'Pah
Imajica is the other reason I took my sabbatical and instituted "Long Books Month" last month. I've attempted three times to get through the dense, sprawling world the book creates, and only this last time have I actually made progress. The book moves in weird patterns in certain places, and occasionally on previous reads I found myself wondering "How'd they get here? What was that thing? Why is there a woman tied up in the basement of that place?" But once I sat down to read the entire book, I realized that things made a lot more sense than I thought they did, and realized what I had on my hands was not the confusing mess full of unpronounceable nouns I thought it was. And it is brilliant.
Imajica is at its center a story about the interactions of three people. Charlie Estabrook is a man who is slowly losing his mind over his ex-wife, Judith. John Furie "Gentle" Zacharias is an art forger and something of a lothario who gets addicted to the feelings of intimacy from his partners. He also has some odd, possibly supernatural qualities that he seems completely unaware of. And finally, there is Judith, the woman loved by both men. Judith has her own part to play in the grand drama of things, though she's mainly the pivot of the story, something for everything to move around. The story begins when one fateful night, Estabrook hires the mysterious assassin Pie'oh'Pah to dispatch Judith, who has moved to New York and left him alone. Estabrook's factotum, a man (or is he?) named Chant, is soon afterward tortured and killed by the agent of a shadowy organization known as the Tabula Rasa.
Immediately consumed by regret for what he's done, Estabrook hires Gentle to find and call off the assassin, or at least to keep Judith from harm. Gentle heads to New York to find Judith, and both have encounters with Pie, who seems able to get up from fatal injuries and change shape. Pie seems drawn to Gentle in some way, and Gentle is fascinated by the odd creature. Pie also has the effect of making Gentle, long an art forger, finally work on something original and new. But the Tabula Rasa continues to strike, looking to take Pie out of the picture as well. Pie, as it turns out, is a creature known as a "Mystif", from what are called the Dominions, four universes separated from the Fifth, Earth, across a boundary of void known as the In Ovo. When Gentle expresses the desire to help Pie and learn more about where he came from, the Mystif takes him over the boundary and into the Dominions.
And then things get weird.
Gentle's strange gifts become full-blown powers in the Dominions, and he and Pie seem to be following in the footsteps of a god known as Hapexamendios the Unbeheld, who led a brutal massacre of the previous goddesses before claiming the First Dominion as his own. The Tabula Rasa seems to be concerned with the anniversary of an event called the Reconciliation, an attempt to re-connect Earth to the other four Dominions. People seem to recognize Gentle and the powers he possesses, though Gentle has never even been to the Dominions. A shadowy dictator known as the Autarch is conquering the Dominions with a mechanized army. And back on Earth, Judith becomes dangerously entangled in a power struggle within the Tabula Rasa and between Estabrook and his brother Oscar. All of this is leading to something, but everyone is unsure whether it will be destruction or transcendence. Soon, they will all find out. Even if it kills them.
First, I'd just like to say that Barker has a way with taking old themes and making them feel new. Especially with the characters. Imajica is, on its face, a fantasy-adventure story with heavy mythological overtones. The mythology involved is entirely created by Barker, but still adheres to similar rules. The story, on the other hand, involves some truly imaginative trappings that make the book seem much less like a heroic fantasy novel. Gentle, while nominally the hero, is a cowardly womanizing egotist who starts the book believing that the world revolves around him. Estabrook, while a sniveling coward, does find a spine eventually and become something more than a pawn. Pie is given significant depth when most would use him either as an exposition machine or a simple love interest. While he sticks pretty close to certain mythological archetypes, Barker does a lot more to explore them, and that makes them real. While Judith is mainly the mechanism to set the plot in motion, she has her own motives and even some indecision that leads to some difficult decisions later on. All of this leads to a plot that is as much about events beyond the protagonists' control as it is about the events they set in motion.
The setting, too, is something to be praised. It's a dense, lush place, filled with a variety of bizarre creatures. One of the recurring monsters is a "Nullianac", a gigantic creature with a head that looks like praying hands. Its eyes are similar to lobsters' eyes, and placed on the end of the "thumbs". And this isn't the only thing that Barker lavishes his detail on. There are gigantic cities, skies that are green in the morning and purple at night, carts, beasts of burden...everything gets described in intense detail. And while this isn't unusual for Barker, it does help add a lot of color to a book that deserves the lavish descriptions and scope. That Barker has built a world here with more distinct detail than most people put into stories twice (or sometimes seven times*) its size is an accomplishment and should be treated like one.
And finally, the imagery in total is fantastic. Barker must paint each one of his creatures and landscapes before he commits them to the page (I've seen his artwork, I wouldn't doubt it), because each scene plays out in a very visual way. A lot of the action has a cinematic feel, as well. It's a nice way of trying to gain immersion, and I'm glad to say, he nails it. There are some very interesting set pieces, and some very vivid and disturbing scenes that fit the setting perfectly. The imagery also carries a hallucinatory quality that helps push it forward, giving everything a kind of dreamlike edge. In particular are Celestine, many of the parts of the city of Patashoqua, and the scenes in the mountains between Gentle and Pie
But if there is one thing that drags the book down, it's the pacing. Imajica takes at least fifty pages to get its plot moving, and the actual plot doesn't lift off until maybe somewhere between page seventy and page one hundred twenty. While all of the information is essential to covering the plot, it just feels long. Also, once the heroes reach the Dominions, the sections set in England tend to drag a little more, as it's more interesting to see what's going on in the really cool fantasy world than to see what's going on in England where everyone's trying to figure out what to do with the really cool fantasy world. Also, it doesn't help that the characters who are, for all intents and purposes, essential to the plot are nowhere near those sections.
But in the end, this is an amazing book, and one that deserves your attention and respect. Normally I would tell you that the flaws in pacing mean that one should check it out of the library, but I'm going to put this down as a "buy", simply because the density makes it something you should digest slowly, rather than work on a strict time limit. Besides, it's a book well worth your respect. If that's not a reason to buy, I don't know what is.
- "Twittering from the Circus of the Dead" by Joe Hill and "Clockwork Girl" by Athena Villaverde
- Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
- It by Stephen King
- and the Geek Rage/Strange Library pick for Book of the Year
*Hello to George RR Martin!