Review: Souls in the Great Machine by Sean McMullen

Every now and then, a sci-fi or fantasy novel or series comes along that completely redefines your definition of “the best sci-fi book I’ve read”. Which is not to say it’s the best book ever, or that everyone who reads it will love it.

However, in the case of author Sean McMullen’s Souls in the Great Machine, I feel comfortable saying “you’re going to like this book”.

SOTM, released in 1999 as a single-book version of McMullen’s Voices in the Light (1994) and Mirrorsun Rising (1995), takes place in Australia, in the future, after a worldwide event called Greatwinter led to the end of modern technology as we know it. No cars, only trains — many powered by wind or by passengers doing the pedaling. No phones, only beamflash — long-distance semaphore similar to the Clacks. And no computers.

Until a young woman named Zarvora Cybeline decides to build a computer.

The thing is, she can’t do it with electronic machines, because the Wanderers — satellites left in orbit from the technological age — will blow electronic and fuel-powered machines out of existence the moment they sense them.

What’s a girl to do? Well, if you’re Zarvora, you take over the most powerful entity in Australia — Libris, the library system — and conscript criminals and numerate individuals to sit in a huge room and do calculations for you. Occasionally you’ll have to duel someone — with flintlock firearms — or take over the government, but when you want to prevent the end of the world (again), sometimes a girl’s got to get her hands dirty.

Into this world, we bring a cast of characters that you’ll enjoy the hell out of, including such rogues as:

  • Lemorel: an extremely intelligent librarian who you should never, ever wrong. Because she’ll kill you.
  • Glasken: a chemistry student with a taste for fine wine and fine women. Guess who he ends up with.
  • Theresla: an abbess from a far-off region who, it’s said, eats grilled mice on toast. When she can find toast.
  • Ilyire: a driven, dangerous man who you’d be glad to have at your back. Just make sure he’s on your side first.
  • Dolorian: a beautiful junior librarian who knows exactly how many buttons of her blouse should be undone at any time.

These characters, and all the other inhabitants of Australia, are subject to a strange force — the Call — which sweeps across the land, forcing those caught unawares to walk south, to some unimaginable fate. No one knows where the Call comes from, and only a few can predict it, and no one can resist it. Precautions are taken — belt anchors, mercy walls, and the like — but if you’re caught, you’re gone.

Lest you think nothing actually happens in the book, I assure you there’s murder, mischief, sex, love, war, technology, and a whole lot of humor. In fact, McMullen is one of the most consistently humorous writers I’ve encountered who isn’t specifically writing a humorous tale.

The book itself is massive — a small-print mass-market paperback version is almost 600 pages — but into those pages you’ll find a world unlike many others, a world of intelligence and honor, chivalry and technology, science and religion, and much, much more. Oh, and for some reason, lots of talk about breasts — I’m going to be honest here: one thing McMullen does in both the Greatwinter and Moonworlds sagas is show his characters’ appreciation for that part of the female anatomy. It’s not like there’s a Hooters in Rochester (the Australian city around which much of this book takes place), but trust me. You’ll notice it.

And if you really like the book, don’t fret — there’s volumes two and three, The Miocene Arrow and Eyes of the Calculor. I personally think Souls is the best of them, and it does stand alone; you don’t have to read the other two.

I’d love to tell you everything about my favorite scenes — Denkar meeting Black Alpha’s true face, learning about resistance to the Call and how exactly that works, Glasken’s time with Theresla as well as his escape from the most dangerous fighting monks in the land, and the final duel between the villain and… well, I can’t tell you that. I don’t want to spoil the book for you — especially when, as I said, this is the book that, to me, redefined my personal definition of “best” when it comes to SF novels. It has everything I like — full characters, a sweeping story, great worldbuilding, and enough action to keep me interested without taking away from the science and technology*.

Buy this book. Read it. It’s worth it. Trust me.

* And breasts. Hey, I’m a lech, but at least I’m a charming one. Right? Anyone?