The Worm Within is the first novel in the Chronicles of Future Earth, a setting created and written by Sarah Newton.
By Paco García Jaén
Based on Earth in a very, very distant future where civilizations have come and gone and the world has suffered for millennia, left-behind ruins, glimpses and legends of what once was, the novel narrates the events that take place after an ancient and powerful threat is accidentally awoken. At the Chronomancer’s Tower, forces are set in motion to find the source of the threat. At the Autarch’s palace, machinations grow as self-interests move the wheels of intrigue bringing the end of the world closer than anyone thought possible.
This novel follows Iago, a young apprentice with a hidden past, and a group of companions delving into the world’s past and present to stop what could very well be the beginning of the end of a new cycliad.
And it is quite a journey.
Before I go on with the review, I must offer a disclaimer. I have known Sarah for as long as I have known of Chronicles of Future Earth – 17 years. This was her setting for an RPG we played and we went adventuring in the very universe this novel introduces. And I loved every second.
Well … not the time when my friend destroyed a few shelves of ancient books with his finger just to find which ones were magical. I was shocked someone could be so careless with books.
Anyway … the point is that we had a great time. I have been a huge fan of the setting since even before it was published and I am good friends with the author. I am also very aware of her other novel and game in the Mindjammer setting, and know how well she writes. So I was bound to like this novel.
I just didn’t expect I was going to like it so much!
When I received the advance preview copy of the novel, it took the best part of 10 minutes to start reading it. And it took Sarah the best part of 20 minutes to throw me into the action. Pretty much from the start, fearlessly, the novel throws you into the world and the characters with just a few brush strokes to paint the very basics of both characters and their surroundings.
To start with I found that a bit disconcerting. Names of lost eras come and go. Places, creatures, people, objects, societies… it all comes in a whirlwind of activity that takes some time to process. This is coupled with the fearlessness of the author to throw you right at the deep end of the action pretty much from the start. A bit of chaos of information that little by little takes shape as eventually one becomes fully familiar with the ideas of pantheons, magics, politics and geography, as well as characters and a very well accomplished sense of ancient history.
The thing is, even though it feels a bit chaotic, it actually makes perfect sense in the context of the novel. An unknown situation is what the characters face and an unknown situation is what the readers get. As the plot unfolds, things become clearer for both characters and readers at the same time, thus helping with the pace and the familiarity with the threat, as well as making a better connection to the world and its history. By the end of the novel, you feel you have been there a long time and, without even realising, you have become very familiar with the world in the book.
The map at the beginning, even though a bit small due to the constraints of the book, gives a very handy visual clue to the journey the protagonists follow, as well as the scope of the world, considering it only represents a fraction of the whole place.
This is also important because it gives us a very clear idea of how well the world is created. How much sense it makes. And, personally, it makes me curious to know more about the cities, mountains, rivers and territories.
The plot is not something revolutionary, and it doesn’t need to be. Something has been found that puts the world at risk and it falls on the shoulders of the few and the unprepared to defuse the situation, or at least try. Taking place in two different locations and involving two different sets of characters, the plot evolves amidst intrigue and slightly predictable subterfuge in a crescendo of action that keeps you entertained throughout the novel.
Characters are very well crafted. Even though I can’t help but think we haven’t seen all they have to offer, relationships are explored and personalities grow with surprising detail that goes from the genesis of their friendships to their sexuality and emotional involvement. From the naive innocence of Iago the apprentice, to the churlish dignified traditions of the Pilogiarch or the troubled past of the priestess Appia, all of them show their vulnerabilities without shame or remorse and they grow stronger because they become closer to us. Suddenly someone from a dodgy background can be just as noble and someone who comes from a place of knowledge can have his world turned upside down.
One thing Newton doesn’t shy away from is, actually, fantasy. I know this sounds silly, but bear with me.
It is much too often that I read fantasy novels and they don’t get out of the Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and Halflings. Medieval fantasy can be a bit trite at times. The Worm Within is not. Far from elves, here we have Viriki and other species, more alien and insectoid than mammal. And they are not just alien in their looks, but also their customs and behaviours are well reflected, giving us societies that, although vastly different, live together and mix well with each other.
Nods at real life situations are scattered around the book. So much so that it feels in places like it’s giving a very subtle yet powerful slap in the face of bigotry and shows a diversity that feels as natural as appropriate.
I could keep going on about this book for hours. Seriously. With a plot that engages without being overtly revolutionary, there are enough twists and turns in this novel to hook you and make you want more and more. And I haven’t even gone into how well written it is. How meticulously the words have been chosen to convey the right meaning and the right tone. And how that writing is used masterfully to reflect the changes in societies and social strata within the societies.
The sheer richness of the environment will be more than enough to paint some wonderful and mighty pictures of scenes that feel you are in them and leave you wanting more. And just as well because there is a trilogy to be finished.
This is the start of an absolutely fantastic new series and I would recommend anyone to jump on the wagon right away because this is already brilliant … but the best is yet to come.