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Review: In the Courts of the Sun

Author: Brian D’Amato
Hardcover: 704 pages
Publisher: Dutton Adult; March 26, 2009

This is a fairly long review, so if you’re reading this for a simple thumbs up or down, let’s get that out of the way right now.

Yes, this is a genre book. Despite an understandable, potential confusion in categorization this novel is solidly in science fiction territory. It is neither simple historical fiction, orthodox time travel tale, or pure apocalyptic thriller, although there are elements of all these things in the novel. Good novels, like intelligent readers, can manage more than one thing at a time. It is a large, complex and impeccably researched book populated by characters and events that will be welcomely familiar (or enticingly alien) to genre readers. I recommend this book.

Now, if you’re still with me, in the spirit of haruspical gaming central to the novel, let’s roll the entrails.

Nearly every reader comes to a new book with certain prejudices and preconceptions arising from a variety of sources; familiarity with the author, recommendation by a friend, print or online reviews, book jacket synopses, or something as judgmentally ridiculous as reaction to the cover art. I have to admit that I held several negative opinions regarding this novel before I ever cracked the cover. I knew from the material forwarded by the book’s publicist that the Mayan calendar and its end in a highly debatable meltdown of civilization on 12/21/2012 served as the platform for the novel’s plot. I also knew, from the same source, that Mr. D’Amato had previously written one other novel, which was a mainstream NYT bestseller titled Beauty, about the contemporary cosmetic surgery industry. The last, rather annoying, thing I discovered in the publicist’s package, was that itCotS was the first volume of a contracted trilogy. From these nuggets I inferred that a.) Mr. D’Amato was hitching a ride to the bank on the post-millennial bandwagon of popapocalypticism, and b.) I was going to be subjected to a mainstream writer’s proud reinvention of genre tropes that have been mainstays of SF writers for decades, and c.) that I might be locking myself into plodding through two more doorstop volumes of padded prose to get back my time investment in the first book of the trilogy. My first reservation dissolved by the end of the second chapter, at about the time I became impressed by the daunting amount of research the author had invested in the novel’s informational blueprint. My second had mainly melted by mid-novel; Mr. D’Amato (despite one rather broad swipe at fan stereotypes) has done his genre homework and neither patronizes genre readers or insults their intelligence. Surprisingly, my distaste for planned trilogies was neutralized by the fact that the conflicts and issues raised in the novel are largely dealt with and resolved within the course of this novel. By the beginning of the penultimate chapter, I was very curious to see how the author would build a bridge to a second volume. In The Courts Of The Sun could easily be read as a standalone novel with a last-minute epiphanic appeal for a sequel.

In The Courts Of The Sun is set alternately in the U.S.A. and Guatemala of The Very Near Future (after now and before 2011), and AD 664 in what is now Guatemala and central Mexico. At the core of the novel is the Mayan “sacrifice game”, a board game used by Mayan adepts for practical prognostication, and its link to the existence of a pending 2012 Mayapocalypse. To his credit, Mr. D’Amato does not ask his readers to buy into the beliefs of the foaming fringe on the basis of currently available information but, rather, provides a previously untranslated codex which is not only more specific in its references, but provides the dates of other, more verifiable historic incidents of Bad Stuff Happening. In the wake of a (codex predicted) terrorist event that dwarfs 9/11, an unlikely alliance of game theory and history academics, students, Mormon billionaires, and occasionally, Homeland Security utilizes a recently developed and classified but hitherto irrelevant form of time travel to attempt to refine their knowledge of the sacrifice game in order to to uncover the identity of the culprit who would ultimately initiate the 2012 meltdown. This brings us to narrator and central character Jed DeLanda, an uber-geek of mixed Mayan and hispanic ethnicity. He is a genius-level, self-proclaimed borderline Asperger’s, and a calculation and memory savant. Jed was raised in a Guatemalan tribal village until he was orphaned at the end of his first decade, and raised by an impoverished LDS foster family in Utah until nearly the end of his second decade. He is also fluent in Ch’olan, the closest currently used language to a classical, pre-columbian Mayan language. Oh, and he’s a hemophiliac. This might seem like a strange character cocktail, but all of the ingredients are necessary for the novel to function properly and, in exposition, this character is developed smoothly and effectively. Jed is also an “adder” (in the mathematical, not the herpetological sense), or practitioner of the sacrifice game in its current, vulgarized form, as taught to him during his childhood tenure with his Mayan mother. Jed is in his late thirties when the novel opens, and has spent time doing graduate grant research into game theory (specifically the sacrifice game), counting cards in casinos, and currently, has become moderately wealthy using the sacrifice game to predict commodity futures.

In The Courts Of The Sun is written in three distinct sections. Two Very Near Future sequences sandwich a time travel section, in which Jed (or rather, a copy of Jed) is deposited in Mayan Guatemala in AD 664 in order to discover how 7th century mesoamericans could play an exponentially more complex version of the game than can be managed by the most modern software available in the 21st century, and to pass that information forward via time capsule for the express purpose of stopping the predicted catastrophe in 2012. As in all time travel novels, there is at least one required suspension of disbelief related to a technology that doesn’t exist. D’Amato does a very nice job presenting his temporal technology — it’s neither over-explained or glossed over and, as time travel technologies go, this one is only slightly past the average credulity quotient. The end result reminds me of Mike McQuay’s 1987 novel Memories, except that McQuay’s travelers are passive, and D’Amato’s are pro-active. The very (in terms of the book’s timeline) recent development of “desktop wormholes” permit the transmission of energy, but not matter, to specific locations at points in the past. Other recently developed technology can, theoretically, copy the mind/personality of an individual (and this is the weakest link in his scientific chain) for transmission as an energy pattern to highly localized points in the past, where that pattern blasts its way into the mind of the designated target (location determined by historical documentation) in a form of trans-temporal possession. I do give the author credit for addressing one issue ignored by most writers of time travel work, that being the highly divergent empirical location of any point on Earth with its position in the universe at points in the past. I don’t think he answers the question satisfactorily, but at least he’s given deep thought to the nature of the disbelief that we’re being asked to suspend. There are at least three Major Negatives involved in this model of time travel as explained in the novel that would make it unlikely to be used except in times of dire necessity. This helps deal with the “if time travel is possible, why don’t we see time travelers from the future?” question that the author brings up on his own in the latter part of the novel. I’ve seen reader reviews on several of the bookseller sites that compare this book to Gary Jennings’ strong 1980 historical novel Aztec, but there really are no substantive similarities between the two novels other than geography and, even then, the geography is separated by nearly a millennia in temporal terms. The nature of the plot and its structure owes something to Michael Crichton, the main character could have been written by Gibson or Stephenson, the voice is remniscient of some of Richard Morgan’s work, but the most apt comparison I can make to another writer would have to be with Paul McAuley’s sfnal thrillers, although I think that itCotS is better written, at least in terms of character, than McAuley’s novels in this category.

In The Courts Of The Sun is written in first person POV. We’re seeing more and more SF written first person recently, and I think that owes to the increasing number of less-than-admirable, sometimes anti-heroesque, protagonists. Realistic, flawed characters are far more sympathetic if we’re inside their head, and this POV offers a greater potential to develop characters who might seem entirely unsympathetic if they were written in third person objective. It also allows Mr. D’Amato to play with the unusual situation of having two protagonists (Jed and Jed2), identical at their point of separation in the process of time travel, who begin to diverge in both small and large ways in response to different emotional, physical, and environmental stimuli, until, by the end of the novel, they are driven (in their respective timelines) by essentially opposite philosophical convictions.

This is a very good, but far from perfect, novel. I think that the author would have liked the centrally themed sacrifice game to rest on a firm platform of game theory. D’Amato names the right names with regard to game theory, and synopsizes the sort of hazy accomplishments of that branch of theory but, ultimately, we’re left with the 800 pound gorilla that never gets firmly addressed in the book, that being the claim, made through the main character, that the sacrifice game works in a scientifically describable fashion, not through supernatural or paranormal means. At one point Jed describes the mechanics of the sacrifice game by stating that it acts as a focal lens for the otherwise unused latent ability of the subconscious mind to model information on an amazingly complex level. I’m all over that, especially as he mentions that the efficacy of the game’s outcome is impacted by the amount of peripheral knowledge the adder has regarding the situation being modeled. It’s a nicely soft scientific and basically undisprovable claim, and it explains the success of the game with regard to commodities futures, political events, imminent military and terrorist operations, and so forth. But, by inference, we’re also being asked to believe that this focal lens allowed an adder in 664AD to model precisely, in terms of specific dates and, in some cases, locations, events as far as nearly 1500 years in the future, with that model including such entirely out-of-context (for the adder) events as, oh — say, the Spanish conquests of the 16th century. When it became clear, over the course of the novel, that this gorilla was going to be ignored, it wandered over and knocked the struts out from under my suspended disbelief regarding the scientific underpinnings of the sacrifice game. Also, the author does have a socio-political agenda, and while this is certainly not a negative on its own (at least, not for me, since it roughly parallels my own), it does lead to several characters being rendered as caricatures lifted from that mindset. There’s also one, niggling problem that bothers me about the development of the main character. This is a personal issue, that probably wouldn’t bother 99% of readers, but I’m obsessive about the way characters are constructed. Let me first say that Jed DeLanda (in both versions) is a deep and richly drawn character — one of the better characters that I’ve read this year — he’s just not the character I would expect to arise from the background and life experience we’re offered. He seems a bit too much the mainline, purely American, geek to have spent his childhood in third world poverty and his adolescence in the shabby shadow of a poor Mormon foster household. The character background is absolutely necessary for this novel to function; his ethnicity, his language skills, savant abilities, and even the hemophilia which frequently kept him home as a young child so that he learned the sacrifice game from his mother, are drawn on throughout the course of the novel. But these features of his background only emerge as context requires. The rest of the time we’re living in the head of a character whose internal context draws largely, in terms of metaphors and descriptors, on an amazing breadth of American geek and pop culture — some well-known, and some fairly obscure, including some large portion of which predates his arrival in America or his escape from Utah. If I’m a FBI profiler, and I’m given the background information we’re offered on Jed, then the suspect I’m looking for isn’t the guy that emerges in the novel. Like I mentioned, this is a profoundly picky complaint. I have the same problem with several of Richard Morgan’s characters, and I’m a devout fan of Richard Morgan. It’s something that nagged at me, so it’s mentioned in this review, but it did not impact my overall appreciation of the book.

The quality of the writing in this novel is very good — startlingly good, actually, given my original expectations. The Very Near Future sequences are sufficiently grim and desperate to satisfy genre readers completely. There is at least one dark political revelation in the book that had me chuckling uncomfortably. Mr. D’Amato’s descriptions of the Mayan and Teotihuacan civilizations, as filtered through the mind of a contemporary observer in Jed2, are as brutally beautiful as the feathers that adorn nearly everything of value in those pre-columbian cultures. The author’s historical research, and his corollary projection of that information into the unknown corners of a lost civilization’s day-to-day lifestyle and religio-political practices is more than impressive. It takes a great deal of time to assemble the data necessary to craft a novel as complex as this one, so it’s obvious that this series of books is not just a venal potshot at a pop phenomenon. The author claims, and I believe him, that this project was in development long before the Mayapocalypse filtered into the internet hive mind. This book is not a fluffy poseur, it’s the result of sincere labor. Although, as I mentioned at the outset of this review, the major tensions and questions posed by this novel are largely answered within the novel — the main character, in the last few pages, is twisted until he breaks, and we’re shown, in his broken form, a glimpse of what may be coming in the second novel. I for one, will be waiting to read it.

Posted in Books & Authors August 3rd, 2009 by Shadow
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