This review of Malignos by Richard Calder was written in 2000 for the British Science Fiction Association‘s magazine, Vector.
Earthlight, 2000, Paperback, 359pp, £6.99, ISBN 0-671-03720-X
Malignos brings to three the number of books delving into the subterranean that I’ve encountered in the last few months. Jokes about mining a rich seam aside, they’ve all been – at the very least – engagingly different.
It is 3,000 years since a slew of particles from a dying parallel universe clouded the minds of humanity, causing many of them to somehow mutate themselves into beings now known as malignos, who resemble mythical demons more than slightly, and retreat into immense artificial caverns underground.
In middle age, Dr Richard Pike is still a debonair swordsman, war hero and philanderer, now forced into exile with his malignos lover, Gala. But when Gala’s relatives, unhappy at her choice of beau, return and force her to drink a potion which turns her into a vegetable, Pike is forced into a dangerous quest to the very centre of the earth and the malignos capital of Pandemonium, where a cure for Gala’s state may be waiting.
This synopsis doesn’t really do the book justice (my non-sf reading girlfriend was mightily sarcastic when she read it) because Malignos is stunningly written using beautiful syntax and imagery that perfectly evokes a decadent, faded future where ancient miracles sit easily alongside duelling swordsmen. The baroque language is a joy to read on its own, but also functions well to highlight the differences between our own world and this one – which certainly isn’t the one you might expect such a stylised narrative to contain.
Pike himself, if not quite on a par with Oscar Wilde, has a dry wit only just beginning to be tempered by the doubts of age, and it’s fascinating to watch the interplay between his public and private persona, which frequently conflict, and Pike’s increasing doubt as to which is the real him as he steadily loses everything he owns on his quest.
The origins of this altered world are only tantalisingly glimpsed, which is maddening as it’s a fascinating idea, and this leaves the book teetering on the very brink of classification as Fantasy.
Personally, I want to read a lot more about Calder’s curlicued world.