Saturday, 19 January 2013

REVIEW: Faction Paradox: Burning with Optimism's Flames


Stories within stories, histories overlaying histories… the Faction is back, and they’re around here somewhere…

A short introduction, for those who aren’t familiar with this range. Faction Paradox are a time-travelling fetish cult, originally from the Homeworld of the Great Houses (read - Time Lords), dedicated to the disruption of history for chaotic effect. Set against the backdrop of a vast War in Heaven, between the Great Houses and an unnamed Enemy, the stories of the Faction span time, space, fiction and reality. Obverse Books are the current licence holders, and Burning with Optimism’s Flames is their second major anthology release for the Faction.

As I’ve come to expect from Obverse, this is an excellent release, although I don’t think it’s quite up to the superlative standards of their first volume, A Romance in Twelve Parts. Nonetheless, there are some truly stunning pieces here, from the best upcoming fantasy writers. Although some stories explore similar themes, each of them involves different characters and settings, from ancient mythological history to a distant, posthuman future. Many are only tenuously linked to the Faction, others feature them directly. There’s a good mix of genres on offer, although most of the stories veer towards horror, a genre that suits Faction Paradox perfectly.

Both the opening and closing stories delve into history, as the Faction and their enemies look to manipulate events to suit their own aims. Both Elizabeth Evershed with ‘Raleigh Dreaming,’ and Philip Pursar-Hallard with ‘De Umbris Idearum,’ explore how one well-placed, remarkable individual can change the course of a civilisation’s development. Both works take a historical period and insert the anachronistic influence of the time-active powers. ‘Raleigh Dreaming’ sees the great explorer confronted by the fallibility of memory as he languishes in the Tower of London. It’s very different to Evershed’s previous story in Tales of the City, but exquisitely written.

Tales of the City was in fact edited by Philip Pursar-Hallard, who here explores a different facet to the Faction universe than his own creation, the City of the Saved. ‘De Umbris Idearum’ features the Remote, a media-dependent group that is essentially the offspring of Faction Paradox. PPH is a Christian, and when his work explores his faith the results are always fascinating. ‘De Umbris Idearum’ explores the life of one of history’s true visionaries, Giordano Bruno, and the history, and destiny, of the Catholic Church. With nested stories in the past, present and future, this closing story is one of the best in the book.

The book explores more than just European history, however. ‘La Santa Muerte’ links the eponymous Mexican death spirit to the Faction in a brief but effective tale of murder. ‘Dharmayuddha,’ by Aditya Bidikar, is a stunningly well-written piece that looks at Hindu myth through the prism of the War in Heaven, or at the War through Hindu myth. Complex, creative and illuminating, it’s a highlight of the collection.

Some authors opt for a contemporary setting to produce gripping horror stories. The truly talented Kelly Hale crafts a sexually charged story of manipulation in ‘Dos Hombres -  A Fable,’ which shares some elements with Juliet Kemp’s chilling ‘Squatter’s Rights.’ In fact, the latter story’s musings on memory tie it in nicely to the concepts explored in the opener, ‘Raleigh Dreaming,’ providing an element that helps hold the disparate collection together. ‘Office Politics’ by Alan Taylor is one of the creepiest things I’ve read in a long time, developing from the simple concept of a new boy coming into an established office team and ending as something quite disturbing. I’ll never be able to look at a Matryoska doll in the same way again. Any reader who enjoys tales with a touch of the horrific will relish these three stories.

James Worrad’s ‘The Strings’ starts slowly, but had me utterly gripped by the conclusion. Set in a distant future, ‘The Strings’ spans high fantasy and science fiction, on a world touched by godlike beings and subject to manipulation from all quarters. ‘All the Fun of the Fear’ is an overlong comedy story by Stephen Marley. A slice of far-fetched fiction in the style of Robert Rankin, it has some cute ideas but crucially isn’t very funny. It’s the collection’s only real miss for me. Marley’s author bio at the back is pretty good, though.

‘Wing Finger,’ a historical piece by Helen Angove, is a tale of European politicking, strange travelling companions and “Ptero-dactyles.” Written in a pastiche of the early 19th century epistolary style, it’s hugely entertaining. ‘Remake/Remodel’ features an underused aspect of the Faction universe, Faction Hollywood. Jonathan Dennis provides a cutting satire of the movie industry, marketing and the return of the superhero, as Faction Hollywood takes one young hopeful, use him to further their aims and then spit him out.

‘… and from the Tower she did fall’  is the most explicitly Faction Paradox based story in the collection, set in their own realm of the Eleven Day Empire. Cate Gardner’s tale is slight but filled with some arresting imagery. ‘After the Velvet Eon,’ by Simon Bucher-Jones, is an opaque but poetically written fantasy, which sees a future legend become a battleground. Just gorgeous.

The penultimate story, ‘A Star’s View of Caroline,’ is a quietly ingenious piece by Sarah Hadley. In the aftermath of an extraterrestrial invasion (a very familiar one, at that, and rather appropriate in this anniversary year), a temporal catastrophe has left some unfortunate individuals in a state of trauma and possibly with visionary insights. It’s an exploration of the strangely misplaced hero worship of the damaged and disabled, a look at the hardships faced by the survivors of terrible events, and an intriguing look at the possible consequences of meddling with time. It’s also a sequel to an earlier story by Hadley, ‘Man of Smoke and Dust’ in 2001’s Doctor Who charity anthology Walking in Eternity. Caroline is a fascinating story in its own right, but having read the earlier story did add a little something.

Burning with Optimism’s Flames is a fine collection of tales with real scope and depth, held together by a mostly consistent tone. There’s a sense of paranoia to be gained from reading it, as the malign forces of the Faction universe each work at us and our history for their own ends. Unlike many shared universe collections, there’s both consistency and variety here, with characters and settings drawn from throughout history and imagination. One thing links all the stories: the inescapable sense that nobody’s safe.

Available as hardback and e-book

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