Playful, intelligent genre-defying work of genius
This is a wonderful, intelligent, playful, genre-defying quilt of a book by one of my favourite authors ever. It combines an Oxford professor caught up in a possible Cold War spy plot, a girl looking for a cat who walks into a Utopian world where Storytellers are revered, and a possibly-mad scientist trying to escape a dystopian one, along with theories of time, religion, the nature of history and archetypes, the power of story (writers will love this book), art vs science, and a dash of a love story – all blended together.
So far, so Narnia – and there are amusing self-referential nods to Tolkien and CS Lewis (the Professor was supposedly one of the members of their writing circle, for example). It’s not a typical fantasy book, and it twists and plays with the fantasy genre enough that it has its own identity – and does it with wry humour and intelligence. It’s challenging, but well worth the brain-stretch.
There are books I love because they have good characters and make you feel, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing like a darn good plot to wrap your head around, and this is an absolute humdinger of a plot. Iain Pears is up there with my favourite writers of all time and I love his style of lean prose and dry wit. He’s an intelligent writer but he doesn’t show off his writing with flowery language that distracts – the plot and character come first.
Weaknesses? It makes you work hard – there are three worlds, ten narrators, and several brain-stretching theories to get your head around, so it’s not a book to read chapter by chapter late at night, but great for holiday when you can get a good run at it. It doesn’t have quite the pathos and depth of his magnificent previous books, An Instance of the Fingerpost or Dream of Scipio, (though the ending of Arcadia is beautifully bittersweet).
However, it reminded me of a Shakespearean comedy or Tom Stoppard’s play by the same name: big themes tackled in a complex, intelligent and amusing way. Highly recommended. Tip: buy on Kindle – the hardback is HUGE.