This week I’m recommending “Arcady” a poetic Science-Fantasy novel by American author Michael Williams, who is better known for his Dragonlance series. “Arcady”, which was published in 1996, is the first of two books which Williams wrote about the Hawken dynasty and their extraordinary family estates. The sequel is called “Allamanda” (1997). You can still find old paperback copies and both these novels are now available as ebooks, with covers which make them look more like standard Steampunk than they actually are.
As the story begins, Solomon Hawken is returning to his ancestral home, Arcady, for the first time in many years because of an urgent summons from his aunt, Morgana. He travels by balloon over the Alphside Forest where government and rebel forces are fighting each other. In this part of Urizen, the rebels are led by the Lady – Solomon’s fiery cousin, Artemis Hawken. She is reluctantly opposed by Solomon’s younger brother, Diego, who commands an incompetent troop of the Citizen’s Guard. Solomon and his young balloon pilot are shot at by both sides and crash-land near Arcady, where they have a perilous encounter with one of the sphinxes which prowl the grounds by night.
The mansion and estate of Arcady sit on the Borders, close to ruins from an ancient civilization and to “the whirling, devouring clouds” known as Absences. Now the Borders are shifting and Arcady is becoming a place of ghosts and shadows, where rooms can change and statues come alive, the dead may appear and the living disappear. Solomon’s little niece, Faith, has already vanished but her father, Endymion, does nothing but drink, argue with his pet phoenix, and build a model city. Aunt Morgana, who claims to see and hear angelic messengers, believes that Absences are about to engulf the house and that only Solomon can save Arcady with the magic he has learned at the famous seminary in distant Lambeth.
The trouble is, Solomon doesn’t believe in magic. He was sent to Lambeth as a young man to study the sacred Text, “the first book found by the Forefathers”. This illustrated book prophesies a union between a mysterious Bard and Saint Milton who will return from the heavens to renew the world. Solomon was expected to train as a priest but a tragedy made him doubt the power of the Text so he became a teacher instead. When he is asked to use the Text against the Absences, Solomon’s initial response is to flee but a series of strange encounters imbue him with a new sense of purpose. He risks entering an Absence, a place “where the fabric of reality unravels”, but nobody who does that emerges unchanged. As the crisis deepens, Solomon’s two estranged brothers set out on their own journeys of discovery. Can the divided Hawken family come together to help Solomon save Arcady?
After this description you may be wondering why I have tagged “Arcady” as Science-Fantasy. Well it’s because this book is set in a future version of our world in the aftermath of some great catastrophe. As in many Post-Apocalypse stories, most people live in small rural communities avoiding the wastelands and the shattered remains of the ancient cities. Technology has reached, or regained, the level of muskets, balloons, steam-boats and velocipedes. So far, so Steampunk but two things make the world of “Arcady” distinctive. Firstly, the mysterious “Physics of the Borders” cause the creatures of the human imagination to come to life, so the Border-dwelling Hawkens have mermaids and dryads in their family tree. Secondly this is a society which derives its religious beliefs and cultural values from surviving fragments of English poetry. Fragments which are interpreted in ways their original authors never intended or imagined.
As in my last choice, “The Reader”, a unique book plays a central role in the story. Characters in the Hawken novels engage with the Text in many different ways. Border-dwellers use sentences from it as protective spells, rival sects argue over the interpretation of obscure passages, sophisticated scholars see the Text as a string of metaphors with no factual content but for many it is “the heart of faith, the Divine Word”. As quoted, the Text seems to range from ugly doggerel to insightful poetry. It mentions a mix of familiar (London, Lambeth) and unfamiliar (Bowlahoola, Golgonooza) place-names and has a cast of unusual angels, saints and deities, such as the Seven Angels of the Presence, Saint Ololon and the creator god, Los. You might well assume that Michael Williams had made all this up but instead the Text is largely taken from “Milton”, an epic poem written and illustrated by William Blake (1757-1827). There is one section of this poem which you probably know – the famous hymn “Jerusalem” (“And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England’s mountains green…”). In “Arcady” part of the plot revolves around whether the government’s “dark Satanic Mills” are causing the Absences to destroy the “green and pleasant land”; an issue with plenty of contemporary relevance.
I’ve attempted to read “Milton” but found it very heavy going (Sample lines – “For that portion nam’d the Elect : the Spectrous body of Milton: Redounding from my left foot into Los’s Mundane space..”). The phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous” might have been coined to describe Blake’s work. Academics have struggled to make sense of Blake’s invented mythology and wild visions but Williams uses them creatively in ways which bring out both their absurdity and their profundity. “Arcady” is not as obscure and difficult as its source material but Williams isn’t the kind of author who explains everything as he goes along. You are plunged into a bizarre and baffling world and left to sink or swim. The narrative never develops into a typical Fantasy adventure and Solomon is more of a thinker than an action hero. The plot drifts back and forward in time and divides to follow all the main members of the Hawken family. I just wish that more page-space had been given to the female Hawkens, such as sculptor, Mina, who continues to work on a vital statue even while she is dying of a cruel disease and potter, Morgana, who has survived persecution for her belief in angels. “Spot the angel” becomes a vital element in the plot as both characters and readers are challenged to decide whether the mysterious voices which speak to the Hawkens are angelic or demonic.
“Arcady” has some appealing characters but it is the places in the story that I find most memorable – the dark, dryad-haunted forest beside the sacred river, Alph; the silvery misted air of the Absences where unseen machinery pounds and gnashes “the sound of the world being eaten away”; and Endymion’s teak, coral and wire city built inside a gin-bottle. Above all there is Arcady itself with its heady mix of danger and beauty; a house centred on the mausoleum of the founder of the Hawken dynasty, expanded by each generation and unpredictably altered by the movement of the Borders. This is a place where ghosts appear in mirrors and angels peer in through the windows. Arcady has sphinxes the way other houses have rats – bronze garden-statues that can suddenly turn into lion-women who smell “hot and acrid and feral” and know how to mesmerize their victims. Williams makes you see Arcady both an actual building and as a vision of the world which the Hawkens are striving to renew. It is a house well worth visiting. Until next time…