Nine Layers Of Sky - Liz Williams

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Nine Layers Of Sky
Liz Williams
Bantam Publishers
ISBN: 0553584995 (Amazon link)

This is Liz William's fourth novel, and very different from the Vance-ian homage of her last outing (The Poison Master), which I thought was good reading despite some structural problems. Nine Layers Of Sky is easily her strongest novel so far, and I think she's delivering on the promise she showed in her earlier novels.

Nine Layers Of Sky is one of the most interesting Alternate World novels I've seen in a long while, mixing the rich and unfamiliar mythology of central Asia with a unromatic, gritty, street level view of life post-USSR. Elena Irinovna, ex-wife of a cosmonaut, is a Russian astrophysicist, with years of experience in the space program. These days, she's a cleaner, struggling to make ends meet and to scrape together enough cash to someday get her, her sister, and her mother out to a new life in Canada. She's under no illusions as to how hard this will be to achieve, but Elena is unwilling to continue on with her current life, and is struggling to avoid the more obvious routes to ready cash that are tempting her less idealistic sister. As the novel opens, Elena is on a trip to Uzbekistan, helping to shift a load of black market jeans - and to pick up the plot McGuffin at the border crossing.

A man has been found frozen to death in his car in the queue, but the ambulance driver knocks into Elena's car in his haste to get away with the body. Williams doesn't pull any punches setting the tone for the novel in this opening section, with Elena's companion Atyrom cheerfully helping beat the ambulance driver to death for denting his car, under the pretext of disgust when the driver is found to have pocketed the personal belongings of the corpse, including some gold teeth. Atyrom then calmly divides up the lot with the disinterested border police and they continue on their merry way. William's central Asia (more convenient for me to specify than Russia/Siberia/Uzbekistan/Tajikistan/etc) is a grim place, all icy slush, pollution, corruption, poverty, desperation and a yearning for a simpler, purer, more heroic past. Her prose is tremendously evocative without being overly melodramatic, with Elena's continual awareness of her country's complex history, complete with internicene warfare and sectarianism, lending a layered depth to proceedings. Elena's inner voice is great - not passive or weak, but always tinged with sadness and a calmly despairing resignation.

Elena's problems start when Atryom and the border guard are dividing up the spoils - she spots a small sphere they missed lying in the slush and pockets it. The sphere is hard, dense and curiously hot or cold whenever she examines it - and as a scientist she's fascinated by it, but as a Russian she's worried about it being radioactive and poisoning her, and wondering how much she can sell it for. Naturally, the sphere is of tremendous interest to other people, and it's not long before people start looking for it, and Elena.

Against this bleakly realistic plot thread William's juxtaposes that of Ilya Muromyets, immortal Son of the Sun, a bogatyr, a hero possessed of unique talents, a mythic figure from Russia's past. Ilya has his own problems now of course; he seems to be one of the few left who can see the rusalki, the feral, vaguely female, spirits of the drowned from Russian folklore. The rusalki won't let Ilya die, though he has no qualms about having made a career out of killing them, always appearing to cure him with their horrifying kisses whenever he is near death - and he wants very much to die now. Russia has no need of heroes anymore, and after eight hundred years of life Ilya only lives for heroin and vodka, desperate to lose himself in oblivion.

Ilya and Elena's paths cross when a man, Kovalin, who knows all about Ilya's real nature and the real nature of the rusalki appears. His order wishes to hire Ilya to recover something - a small sphere, of tremendous value to the rusalki. The sphere is very valuable, and has the power to somehow permit entry to the world of the rusalki. Kovalin's organisation want this sphere badly, and Ilya, hero for hire, will be well rewarded for it - they will help Ilya to die. In the manner of all the best stories, it's not until Ilya saves Elena from a rusalka in the middle of a crowded shopping area that he finds something to live for. The slow-growing relationship between the surprisingly gentle Ilya - a crazy junkie dressed in dirty rags, clutching a sword and claiming to be a mythical hero - and the pragmatic Elena is central to Nine Layers of Sky, and it's terrific reading.

Nine Layers Of Sky is pretty difficult to summarise, and I don't think the paragraphs above convey the impact of this book - the author is clearly writing about the locations and cultures from some personal experience, as the prose is peppered with small throwaway details of the life in the post-Soviet republics, and her passion for the setting enlivens what at times threatens to become a rather grim and depressing tale, whose central theme seems to be lost dreams. The painfully delicate and slow growing romance between Elena and Ilya helps balance out the tone of the novel, and the only real issues I had with Nine Layers Of Sky lay with the rather cluttered nature of the plot near the end - I could forgive the rather clumsy use of the McGuffin, but felt that there were a few too many elements to the Alternate World plot-line, and as a result the ending felt a little rushed and incomplete. Still, the absorbing and evocative prose more than made up for any weakness in the plot, and I've no hesitation in recommending this highly.

There is an excerpt on the publisher's website here .

Posted: Mon - October 13, 2003 at 01:33 AM