Synopsis: Seven pilgrims journey to a distant world, to visit a mysterious murder-alien who is rumored to grant wishes… or kill you.
Another book I’d been hearing about for forever. Turns out that yeah, this is a damn masterpiece of science fiction.
The novel has a primary storyline, concerning the pilgrimage. However the bulk of the text is the pilgrims tell their life-stories to each other in self-contained novelettes. Each of these novelettes is written in a different style, with a different theme. This allows Simmons to show off his range and versatility, and gives us a rich sampler platter of story-types to read. There’s xeno-exploration, military fic, Poe-style poetic tragedy, family drama, etc. All of them strongly SF-flavored. Each of these novelettes (with one exception) is a deeply engrossing story in its own right, with great character and world building, and engrossing plots. But the really masterful part is the way that all these individual novelettes build up the wider universe that the primary story takes place in. You quickly begin to see hidden actions and associations between the novelettes that isn’t very significant within a single novelette, but that are obviously connected and draw a much larger picture of what’s happening in the world when taken together. It’s telling a meta-story behind/within all the smaller human-scale stories the pilgrims are relating.
Taken together like this, we readers see an epic storyline unfolding from the various pieces we’re given. The feeling that comes with slowly realizing what’s happening is fantastic, and very rare. The only book I can easily recall pulling off something similar was Vellum, though the revelation in Use of Weapons was similar, if smaller scale. This is a hell of a feat for an author, and an absolute delight for a reader. I don’t want to over-hype the book, but it is really good, and you should read it if you haven’t yet.
A couple notes: The book is named for an abandoned epic-poem by Keats, and both Keats and the poem are referenced several times within the novel. I looked up the poem, and while I didn’t read it (cuz I suck at poetry), I did read about it, and seeing the deliberate parallels between the two works made the reading process even more enjoyable. Simmons is mirroring the themes in Keats’ poem in an SF setting, and it works.
Also, the reason I read this when I did was because I’ve started listening to the Doofcast, and this was their September Book Club book. They do a long dive into it in their episode, with many cool insights, and I think it makes a great companion. However it is full of spoilers, so wait until after you’ve finished the book. Shout-out and thanks to them for pushing me to do this, or it might have been several more years before I got around to it.