The Washington Post
The Engine's Childby Holly Phillips
Lanterns and flickering bulbs light the shadowy world of the rasnan, the island
From acclaimed author Holly Phillips comes a major work of visionary fantasy in the vein of Jeff Vandermeer and China Miéville. As richly detailed as it is evocative, the vivid prose of this ambitious novel illuminates a lushly imagined world poised on the brink of revolution.
Lanterns and flickering bulbs light the shadowy world of the rasnan, the island at the edge of a world-spanning ocean that harbors, in its ivory towers and mossy temples, the descendants of men and women who long ago fled a world ruined by magical and technological excess. But not all the island’s inhabitants are resigned to exile. A mysterious brotherhood seeks to pry open doors that lead back to their damaged, dangerous homeland. Others risk the even greater danger of flight, seeking new lands and new freedoms in the vast, uncharted sea.
Amid a web of conspiracy and betrayal, three people threaten to shatter this fragile world. Scheming Lord Ghar, faithful to lost gods and forbidden lore, plays an intricate power game; Lady Vashmarna, an iron-willed ruler, conceals a guilty secret behind her noble façade; and Moth, a poor, irreverent novice, holds perhaps the darkest power of all: a mysterious link to a shadowy force that may prove to be humanity’s final hope–or its ultimate doom.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The Washington Post
In this murky, unpleasant novel, set on a world almost entirely covered with water, Moth, a preternaturally gifted young woman, defies her priestly vows for love. She quickly finds herself pregnant by her clandestine lover and the pawn of political and religious machinations on all sides. Secret societies battle, one obsessed with returning to a possibly mythical perfect world and the other driven to build the titular engine, a piece of magical technology intended to harness the spirit of the planet and drive ships out to sea in search of new land. Pretentious fantasy vocabularies and didactic cardboard characters weigh down the narrative. Worst of all, bratty, unlikable Moth is not so much an unreliable narrator as a straightup liar, claiming ignorance of crucial facts only to later reveal that she knew all along. Readers struggling to know what to believe will quickly realize they have no reason to care. (Nov.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A poetic but sometimes muddled fantasy novel from Phillips (The Burning Girl, 2006, etc.) that never quite has the momentum that its title implies.
The plot mostly follows Moth, a young religious apprentice in a society whose inhabitants descend from a race that fled some unspecified catastrophe generations before. The island on which all the remaining people live, surrounded by a vast, uncharted ocean, is quickly becoming too crowded, and poverty, food shortages and political infighting plague Moth's people. Thus, Moth works with a secret group of cohorts to create the titular engine, a device part mystical and part mechanical, which will tap into the world's spiritual energy and propel a similarly constructed ship into the unknown to seek new inhabitable land. Meanwhile, another secret group attempts to return to the world from which their ancestors escaped, never entirely certain whether it's heaven or hell. It's all a bit esoteric, and Phillips doesn't make much effort to ground her story in scenarios that feel human or identifiable. The language easily slips back and forth from beautiful to obtuse, although there are some lovely passages that almost work as prose poems on their own, divorced from the story. Phillips touches on contemporary issues including the divide between the rich and the poor, religious intolerance and the dangers of overpopulation, but the book is not an allegory; it's a rush of images and emotions that don't always hold together.
The well-realized fantasy world and flashes of delightful prose nearly make up for the frustrating story and stilted characterization.
Agent: Sally Harding/The Harding Agency
This richly complex tale from the author of The Burning Girl deftly encapsulates an entire culture's frictions and fractures in the loyalties of one young woman. Moth seeks to climb out of the Tidal slums where she'd been abandoned without betraying her Tidal friends, her secret mother, her lover, or her bond with the invisible powers of her world. Beneath the surface of a seemingly stable, if compressed, island civilization, connections and tensions link the Society of Doors, an outlaw organization looking to return to the heaven of the past; Lady Vashmarna's scientific idealists seeking to expand limited resources; a ruler clinging to the failing status quo, and the Tidal have-nots coping with an explosive brew of fear, faith, and rumor. Sharp-edged personalities and complicated personal relationship among the characters prevent Phillips's tale from degenerating into allegory. Her lush prose and dark fantasy cityscape will appeal to fans of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and Sarah Monette's Melusine, but her manipulative, scarred, sexual, unapologetic antiheroine recalls Elizabeth Bear or Melissa Scott. For fantasy collections where those authors circulate. –Library Journal, Meredith Schwartz, New York
“ Open up the new novel by Holly Phillips, 'The Engine's Child', and your reading experience will sweep away any notion of genre or concept.Reading Phillips' novel provides layers of pleasure; the immediacy of her prose and the joy of unpacking her world, the involving skeins of plot and peril and unfolding understanding of her conceptual framework. 'The Engine's Child' suggests that we’ve stepped past the boundaries of genre and into literature that knows no boundaries. Phillips writes with a purity of conviction that replaces the reader's world with her creation. And she tells one hell of a good story in the process. It's not all shadings and subtlety. Blood is spilled as the best-laid plans crash up against the novel's carefully crafted reality.”
- The Agony Column
“Phillips writes dark fantasy mostly with the aura of heroic fantasy, aiming to awe far more than to frighten–and succeeding, awesomely.”
–Booklist (starred review), on Holly Phillips’s In the Palace of Repose
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Read an Excerpt
Moth slipped out the dormitory door and into the darkness of the porch. A small escape, a smaller victory, and not a certain one until she was well away, but still she paused to savor the pleasure of being alone. The rain beyond the porch roof sang and pattered and sighed. Electric lamps on the dam blazed all night, every night, but here, with the temple and half of the scholarium buildings between, the rain stole all the light. Passageways and cloistered yards were filled with falling sparks, while the buildings were only an absence, a darkness where nothing fell. Moth left the porch’s shelter and suffered one sharp moment of misery before she grew resigned to the chill. The endless rain, the monsoon rain that refused to die. At least it smelled of clean stone and ferns, and not of the farts and borrowed breaths of her dorm mates. A few hours’ escape was worth a soaking, and—Moth drew a quick, happy breath— escape was only the beginning. The night was full of purpose, Moth’s purpose, her lady’s purpose, teeming through the darkness like the rain.
Tonight the priests were keeping vigil in the meditation hall beside the temple. Moth had taken her turn in the hours between noon and sundown, kneeling with the other dedicants while the damp ringed their prayer candles with halos. Kistnu, absent mother, stretch out your hand. Kistnaran, mother of absence, turn your terrible face aside. So they prayed for the holy breath of lost gods to snuff the candle flames, and so they prayed for an end to the rains, as if the two graces, the two miracles, were of equal weight. Moth, passing along the back side of the hall, felt the moss-slimed stones throb with three hundred murmured prayers and had to unclench her jaw. Why should it be harder to listen to all those souls begging for the absent Mother’s notice than it had been to do the begging? Ah, but unlike the priests, she did not want or expect an answer to her prayers.
Her path took her behind the temple, where the new priests’ dorm had swallowed up most of the old dancing yard, and where rainwater ran like a meandering stream across the foot-worn stones of what remained. Moth had lived all her life among the buildings of the shadras and knew nothing about the hadaras, the countryside. She had never heard the rush of a real stream over its rocks or the supple racket of wind-tossed bamboo, but she knew the gurgle of an overflowing gutter and the tick-tack-tonk of the consecrated bamboo chimes that hung from every eave. Bless us, spirits of air, against the dark-shrouded evils of night, the wind chimes said. A more cogent prayer, perhaps, but still, not one of Moth’s. She grinned in private delight. Definitely not one of Moth’s.
On the far side of the temple, close to the road that divided the bastion between the priestly scholarium and the fortress of the engineers, lay the scholars’ hall, its angled roofs limned with electric gold from the lights on the dam. A bright roof raised by walls of bloody murder, themselves built on a foundation of secrets and lies: of course Moth came here first. She had hours yet before she was late, and the scholars’ hall, where her daylight aspirations were aimed, was a perennial object of curiosity. Shining rain fell from invisible clouds, gurgled through gutters, spattered around brimming drains, so one slight Moth flitting across the scholars’ yard would hardly be noticed, even if—especially if—she was not the only shadow abroad in the rain. Moth hurriedly tucked herself into the dark gap between two wings of the hall, where a choked gutter’s overspill spattered her with frog slime and crumbs of moss. A quiet stream of people, a veritable furtive crowd, was jostling its way out of the high priest’s dwelling and losing itself in the rain. Aras Baradam had been entertaining.
Oh, now this was interesting. Aras Baradam, new-minted high priest and scion of the wave-footed towers in the bay, was a son of privilege who could not speak a tidal orphan’s name without a sneer. Moth. He said it as if he had just found one drowning in his soup, and he said it too often for Moth’s liking. Why did he take notice of her when she tried so hard to be unremarkable? She could not fathom it. Perhaps it was simply that he had recognized, as she had with a single glance, a natural enemy. She suspected him of everything on principle, and by watching him closely had teased from his semblance of piety fuel for her suspicions.
And thinking this, she recognized one of the men ducking from that lighted doorway into the night. What was he doing here?
This went beyond the merely interesting. Startled, Moth eased herself out of the overflow and ran around one wing, through a covered passage where she left footprints on the flagstones, across a porch where more chimes clacked a counterpoint to the rain, and under a cloister, where she hung against a carved pillar, screened by living vines while she spied on the broad court fronting the temple and the scholars’ hall. None of the figures slipping away from the hall bore a light, but that form she would have known if even the lights on the dam had died and the whole world had gone dark. She would have known him by the shape traced out by the falling rain. He paused. She held her breath. And instead of coming past her hiding place, as he should have done to make his way back to where he belonged, he walked away from her, climbed the broad temple steps, and disappeared within.
Very, very quietly Moth swore.
Once more around the hall and behind the temple. Time was not yet running out, but it was running, and so was Moth. As silent and unregarded as her namesake, she ghosted along the front of the meditation hall, where the carved screens between the pillars stung her with bees of light and a burr of sound. Kistnu, absent mother, stretch out your hand. Moth clung to the temple’s front corner where the steps made a spidery niche, waiting for two more of aras Baradam’s guests to vanish into the scholarium, and in that moment the massed murmur of prayers behind her softened into the long breathless ssshhhooohhh of the summoning, like the rumble of a wave dying with a last hiss of foam. Was it as late as that? Her heart beating quickly and lightly from the run and from more than the run, Moth hitched herself up onto the portico without bothering with the steps and padded around the corner of the eternally open door.
The immense bronze figures of the gods sat in shadowed splendor along the walls. Kistnu with the dreadful face of Kistnaran held like a mask half-hidden in her hand, beautiful Rohad-Haru ambiguously smiling at the nameless god with his ivory tusks and enameled claws, and wise Prosepurn with his golden key guarding the prayer-hung screen at the end of the nave, all of them flanked by their attendant saints, their memorial stelae, their fonts and offering bowls. The priests were at vigil, the scholars at whatever they were at (what were they at?), the novices and dedicants in their beds—but with such a crowd the temple would never be empty. Only Moth, stalking her unwary quarry from behind the left-hand saints and gods, knew those huge, somber, brooding images were all hollow and full of spiderwebs behind.
He paced, reverent or thoughtful, down the open floor of the nave; she scurried crablike between the gods and the wall. Her bare feet were silent, but the air stirred by her passage whispered against the hollow bronzes, making the faintest imaginable hum. The candles left by absent worshipers made more noise, their flames teased by damp and burning insect wings, but still he slowed and looked about him, as if he had been startled out of his thoughts. This hesitation gave Moth the chance to achieve her place. By the time he had bowed and lit a cone of incense at the oil lamp burning by Prosepurn’s feet, she was standing among the ranked saints at the god’s right knee, her shirt off and her wet breasts gleaming like polished bronze. She breathed as lightly as she could to keep from giving the game away too soon, and she was giddy from lack of air, from stifled laughter, from the freedom of the dangerous night. He prayed.
She breathed out his name and breathed in the drifting perfume of the incense smoke. He turned a slow circle, studying the many shadows of the empty temple, dignified even as he sought the source of this half-imagined sound.
He turned back and, deliciously, darted a suspicious look at Prosepurn’s face smiling high overhead. Moth made no sound, but the laughter would not be denied and escaped her through an involuntary wriggle of her spine. Aramis Tapurnashen glanced down as if he had caught the movement in the corner of his eye, and frowned at the clustered saints. The saints, wood and brass, copper and bronze, smiled or brooded or meditated on holy things behind demurely lowered lids. A sound fluttered up above the wreathing smoke, a word cut off just as it was begun, and then given a second chance at life with a sigh.
Saint Moth raised her eyes, drew one finger across her brooding smile, and drifted backward into the god’s shadow. Aramis, his mouth taut and his dark eyes wide, wormed after her through the saints’ close ranks.
She breathed as softly as she could through parted lips. To find her, Aramis would have to put out his hands—and he did, reaching and finding with one motion, his touch warm and dry on skin still damp with rain.
“Moth,” he whispered again, “this can’t be right.”
So he said, but his hands caressed her naked back as she stepped into his arms.
“It must be right,” she whispered back. “It’s love.”
Even whispers throbbed with muted echoes in the hollowed-out breast of the god.
“Do you have no scruples?”
“Shhh.” Always so serious, her Aramis. Moth loosened the buttons of his sober coat and worked her hands through layers of cloth to his skin.
“Do you want to be found?” he said with real anxiety.
“No. So shush.”
Which he had to do, as another late-night petitioner, walking with loud, honest footsteps, came into the temple. Shod feet spattered echoes across every stone and metal surface, and Aramis, deprived of argument, let his mouth be stopped by a kiss, and shortly thereafter let himself be pulled to the dust- carpeted floor. He always did warm eventually, hearth to Moth’s flame. It was what drew him to her, she suspected, her reckless heat that lit a fire in his dutiful engineer’s life, and sometimes that secret fire burned all the hotter for their silence.
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The island is a tiny dot amidst the vast ocean that is everywhere. The islanders know their history as the ancestors fled from another world and were fortunate to find this needle. Over the years the small landmass has become overcrowded and shortage of food has become the norm. Myths and religions have developed about the homeland of the ancestors as a utopia and their use of mystical spiritual energy. Two major extreme groups are divided between returning to the perfect homeworld and siphoning the mystical energy of this world.
Moth is a religious novice training for the priesthood. She has committed the major transgression of falling in love and becoming pregnant from her trysts. She belongs to the secret sect that believes in using this water world¿s spirit. They are constructing two magical-mechanical machines to convert the orb¿s mystical energy into a usable form that will power the sailing ships seeking new land. Their adversaries are working on a vessel to return to the ancestors¿ planet. War seems imminent.
This is a fascinating blending of science fiction and fantasy, but Holly Phillips never decides between a morality allegory and a thriller. Thus in spite of a fully depicted world and an interesting but frustrating unlikable lead character, the story line is divided. At times the plot poetically describes consequences like the Malthusian Catastrophe, the affluence gap between the wealthy and the starving; a Garden of Eden mythos, and a condemnation of religious intolerance. At other less poetic moments, the tale seems heading to a civil war. Moth with her tendencies to lie about her knowledge of facts on the ground (so Bush administration) adds to the confusion. Still THE ENGINE¿S CHILD is an intriguing look at morality on another planet.